True story: I took my wife to see “North By Northwest” at the Museum of the Moving Image a few years ago. She'd never seen it. At the precise moment Cary Grant summoned the bellboy paging “George Kaplan” (the key misunderstanding that instigates the entire film) some yutz walked in the row in front of us, blocking our view.
Luckily the rest of the film is loaded with enough context (and excitement!) to make up for this, but woe to whomever chooses the wrong moment to look down at their Junior Mints during “The Loneliest Planet.” This extremely low-fi, arduously microscopic character examination is, in Philistine’s terms, almost two hours of people doing nothing but walking. I say almost because, indeed, there is one moment of action – or more accurately reaction – that gives the entire movie a reason for existing. Only a genuine bastard would ever spoil the film's sole plot point, so allow me to simply say that an “event” of some sort causes a character to show a side of himself that he'd rather not. One is then invited to spend the rest of the movie (and there's plenty left, believe me) to chew over whether he did this thing out of malice or cowardice or sheer animal instinct.
There are three main characters in “The Loneliest Planet.” Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg play what are understood to be American tourists, ironically, of course, because he is Mexican and she an Israeli. They are in Georgia (the country, not the state) and hire a guide for a multi-day trek through the highly photogenic Caucasus Mountains. Director Julia Loktev, whose previous feature “Day Night Day Night” is a brilliant work of immersion into the mind of a would-be terrorist, takes her cues from different schools of evocative “man and nature” films. There are silent, up-close tracking shots reminiscent of Gus Van Sant's “Gerry” and there are long lensed shots from a million miles away set to music, as in the opening of Werner Herzog's “Aguirre: The Wrath of God.”
In terms of plot or character development, one is left to stitch together what you can from half-overheard mundane dialogue. We get the impression that the two (engaged to be married) are world travelers and, on the whole, nice people.
Then, at just past the halfway mark, the Event happens. It isn't directly discussed for the rest of the running time, but the silence is, as they say, deafening. Or is it? Just when you think that the Event (and I'm so sorry for being vague, but, trust me, it is the right thing to do) must surely be the only thing on our trio's minds, they interact in ways that seem completely normal. It's as if we are witnessing them process the implications of the Event in real time – first anger, then acceptance, then guilt for feeling angry (or embarrassment for feeling guilty.) Or, maybe, this is just me projecting onto the film because, on the face of it, there's nothing explicitly happening. It's just people walking across streams and climbing rocks for two hours.
“The Loneliest Planet” is, if you can't tell, an art film. If you have a low tolerance for even a whiff of B.S., this is not a movie for you. If you are willing to subject yourself to an experience that is outside the norm of what a traditional movie is supposed to do, then you may come away with fertile soil for some fruitful discussion. If that's the case, contact me. I'm sure the twelve of us will have a blast.