Mall the weird thoughts were swirling around my mind while watching David Easteal’s three-hour drama The Plains, although nothing weird happened during this one. Based in the back of a car for most of its very long life, the film captures a series of commutes for a middle-aged lawyer, Andrew (Andrew Rakowski), who has a familiar routine: calling his mother and his wife; listen to talkback radio; sitting in silence; or chat with a colleague (Easteal, also director and screenwriter of the film) whom he sometimes brings home.
Looks interesting? Of course not. But this extraordinarily mundane film – a combination of words I’m pretty sure I’ve never used before – is a tremendous achievement and, in a subtle way, an amazing work of art. Such uncluttered voyeurism prompts many interesting ideas: that drama can exist without drama, and that engaging narratives are all around us, observable with the right eyes.
The plains are told through conversations, both between Andrew and his colleague, and Andrew on his phone. Easteal resists hosting these loudspeaker calls, which would have allowed both sides of the exchange to be heard; instead, we only hear Andrew, giving a restrained auditory perspective that matches the film’s restrained visuals. Ordinary speech turns into little puzzles that we try to solve.
The trick of placing an entire movie inside a car has been done before, like Tom Hardy’s solo thriller Locke, which regularly cuts around and outside the car while the actor stays inside. inside. Easteal’s camera stays still for the vast majority of the experience, allowing us to see only the back of Rakowski’s head.
Nor is it like the brilliant of Jafar Panahi Taxi from Tehran, in which the Iranian director concealed three cameras to create very dramatic moments. But The Plains isn’t dramatic at all, operating in slow and small reveals, the details of the protagonist’s life gradually fleshing out.
We learn that Andrew has been in the legal and judicial game for a long time (he’s part of “the old guard”). He has a wife named Cheri (Cheri LeCornu), who is sometimes seen but never heard from. The health of his frail elderly mother, whom he calls almost every day, is deteriorating. This tangent is the equivalent of a plot – even if a word like “plot” doesn’t quite fit, implying an artifice antithetical to the film’s naturalistic vibes.
Keeping the camera fixed in a moving vehicle evokes a contradictory feeling of being stationary while constantly moving (despite fairly heavy traffic). It’s far from new, with many film precedents, including one of the medium’s earliest genres: a type of film known as “ghost rideswhich were often shot in moving trains.
When Easteal breaks up this format by occasionally cutting out drone footage – filmed by Andrew – that shift feels epic. Context is everything. That’s why in the wordless animal movie Gunda – another staggering daily job – the mere arrival of rain can seem far more dramatic than any block-leveling spectacle in a Marvel movie.
In his hugely influential book Expanded Cinema, Gene Youngblood observed that commercial entertainment “exploits audience alienation and boredom, perpetuating a system of formulaic conditioned response”. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most obvious contemporary example of this: a form of profit-driven cultural decadence, viewing audiences as objects to be manipulated.
Great out-of-square films like The Plains, rare as they are, exist on a different frequency, reminding us that there is no “right” or “true” cinematic experience – only different scales of convention and of experimentation.
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