Country Roads, by Patrick Felton
Pilgrim Song is the sophomore feature from Kentucky filmmaker Martha Stevens. After premiering earlier this year at the South By Southwest festival it has made its made its way to many regional film festivals in the Southeast and Midwest including the Nashville Film Festival, River Run Film Festival, Little Rock Film Festival, and Indie Grits Film Festival. Saturday June 30th the film will screen as part of Awesomefest in Philadelphia.
Ms. Stephens first caught my attention with her virtuoso mine disaster drama feature Passenger Pigeon, which benefitted from a similar trajectory after premiering at SXSW in 2010. A graduate of the North Carolina School For The Arts, Stephens films focus on the low key, isolated communities of rural Kentucky and Appalachia, with a native’s eye. As a native of West Virginia, I found myself connecting with her deeply personal tale of the human toll of mining imperialism on impoverished communities. Passenger Pigeon was the rare film capable of merging John Sayles horizontal humanism with Kelly Reichardt’s sense of place.
While not as emotionally potent as Passenger Pigeon, Pilgrim Song cements Stephens as a voice to be reckoned with among the new class of southern Neo-realists. Despite a level of narrative messiness, If found myself unable to shake the film’s siren-like mountain charm.
Pilgrim Song follows James, a Louisville musician who just lost his job teaching music education. The film’s opening scenes follow James in a sense of suspended animation, sitting around doing nothing, pestering his girlfriend at work on her distillery job. Eventually, he decides to use his sudden unemployment as an excuse to find himself by hiking Kentucky’s Sheltowee Trace Trail.
Morton’s performance is astonishing to watch if only for its lack of charisma. This is not a criticism, as his muted apathetic portrayal seems to be one of calculated design on the part of Stevens and her co-screenwriter. They seem to be tackling the reality of the introverted mountain man, which remains, despite its clichéd nature, a true archetype. James performance shifts beyond subtle to non-existent in the best possible way. Some audiences will possibly bristle at his inert impenetrable portrayal, but I fell in love with the intimate and low key mannerisms and actions, and I found it easy to engage in their hypnotic monotony. James’ interactions keep with the tone of low key inert verite style filmmaking with dialogue that feels improvised (At a Q&A for her film Passenger Pigeons, Stevens told me that she actually utilizes very little improvisation, which only adds to the impressiveness of her performers)
Given these character parameters, its not surprising that the films best early moments involve James silently walking the trail. Stevens makes great use of her surroundings blending sound, with muted green wilderness. There’s something very freeing being able to engage with a time and place without having to focus too deeply on what’s going on. Very often Stevens utilize the zoom function in filming to add to the level of intimacy with James. At about the twenty-minute mark, I began to wonder whether or not we would see any more characters.
The film eventually begins to introduce a series of other travelers whom James interacts with, including a park ranger with a militant love for marijuana and a hitchhiker with whom he has a one-night stand. These sequences are deeply episodic and filled with numerous great slice of life moments. Particularly sequence the park ranger shows the balance between prickly and engaging that Stevens seems to aim for in her characters. As strange as it is to say, much of the dialogue played like a cross between John Cassavetes and Harold Pinter.
Location work on this film is spectacular. They are dirty, lived-in, representative spaces that capture the alternate Americana of flyover country that hides behind the picket fences façade. This is a film populated in equal measure by beautiful mountain vistas and sketchy roadhouse bars. While never crossing the threshold of sensational, the film never hides from the aesthetic trashiness and rowdiness, including several shots of my beloved Sutton, West Virginia. (A memorable scene features an exterior of a decrepit movie theater and hotel in which I used to run a film festival.)
As the film continues, it develops a new loose elliptical narrative structured around James interactions with Lyman and Bo, a gregarious father and son duo. As James finds himself in physical hardship, circumstances force him to bond with Lyman and Bo. Lyman and Bo give James an opportunity to bond with other human beings and express himself. This relationship seems occasionally forced but is saved by the uniform honesty of Bryan Marshall’s performance. Marshall rides the line between scumbag and sweetheart with deep potency. With such an impotent protagonist, Marshall is called on to carry most of the third act of the film which he does extremely well.
Ultimately, the film cannot reconcile James stubbornly implacable ethos with the need for a thematic arc. An 11th hour attempt to cause James to reevaluate his priorities plays relatively well until an elliptical and enigmatic ending erases its effect. While this keeps entirely with the tone of the rest of the film, I found it utterly frustrating. Perhaps in depriving the audience of a catharsis, the film best succeeds in putting the audience into the headspace of aimlessness that it so expertly portrays.
Despite its lack of compelling storytelling, the film has numerous moments of surprising honesty. When you shine a light on a specific subculture, you expect it to often feel exploitative. What Stevens is able to do is rare in that she manages to explore a world with extreme authenticity without building a world. The film has a deeply transportational property capable of enveloping you in its rural milieu.
Comparisons to early David Gordon Green seem apt. Expect to see Ms. Stevens work again in the future as she will certainly continue to be in any discussion of new Southern filmmakers. This film is a breath of fresh air.