Siberia: Wide Open, by Alexander Miller
When you watch Abel Ferrera’s Siberia, you’ll be tempted to “figure it out” and engage with the film the way you would with any conceptual work of art. This might sound biased or opinionated but if you go into this movie with an objective in mind, don’t bother. That’s not to say that you won’t “get it” or that the film is only going to appeal to those operating on some other level because Abel Ferrera could really give a shit if you like his movie or not. In some ways, Siberia is a huge departure for the self-styled auteur, just as it is remarkably consistent with his MO.
Ferrera’s confrontational aesthetic has been committed to revising genre conventions for over 40 years. And with his most recent two movies (this and Tomasso), it seems he’s chucked any trace of filmic recognition, opting for a more intuitive and expressive bent. But, most importantly, does it work?
His fruitful union with Willem Dafoe (decades in the making) is, at this point, a matter of dual authorship. Had there been no Dafoe/Ferrera joints beforehand, we wouldn’t be talking about this labyrinthine movie called Siberia.
Almost in the dark shadow cast from 2019’s Tomasso, this film is an offshoot of that one and Dafoe’s very much a Ferrera surrogate in both. While Tomasso is rooted in a recognizable world with a (comparatively) coherent story, Siberia is a surrealistic foray into the dark psychosis of someone who isn’t content to take you by the hand but clench you by the scruff of your neck and force your head into an icy pool of murky ideation.
One of the many perverse joys of Ferrera’s cinema is that feeling of danger that emits from his filmography. But he’s taken us away from the streets of New York. As a matter of fact, he’s taken us away from any recognizable locale and plunges us into the frozen empire of psychological expression that is the film’s setting. The gravelly timbre of Willem Dafoe greets us over the titles as he recounts childhood memories of his father. We see him tending bar at a remote outpost in the glacial hills of a mountainous tundra. The aura is established almost immediately that we’re operating beyond the realm of consciousness; at times, the tenor is akin to a casually intuitive horror film; but the overall commanding atmosphere dictated by Ferrera is one of distinctive, purgatorial bewilderment.
Dafoe’s character, Clint, repeatedly squares off with various adversaries, navigating surreal encounters with people and creatures in between his treks across the mountains as he’s pulled on his dog sled. There’s the vague outlier of a story, but who needs it? This trip is a heady one that’s nearly impossible to get your hands around, but if you fall under its spell, you’ll find yourself enveloped in its immersive, haunting, and occasionally beautiful execution. While defying explanation and categorization, this almost feels the inverse of Malick’s emotionally driven recent titles on a bad acid trip with touches of Jack London. Throughout, there’s a stunning command of the film’s visual expanse as Ferrera’s penchant for breathtaking vistas, horizons, and sweeping shots of the vast elements healthily embodies the cinematic epic, unlike anything he’s lensed before. It’s a fitting counterpoint to the supernatural seeming violence and horrors that occur throughout; there’s no easy way out at any point, so don’t even try to look.
What’s truly compelling about the overall effect of Siberia is that the film’s seemingly loosely structured avant-gardism is actually an articulate and mature vision. In some ways, this is Ferrera doing and 8 ½. It’s very much an artistic reconciliation, a cathartic workout, and a rumination on the creator’s life and work. Naturally, the only thematic tether is merely referential. Long story short, this ain’t no Stardust Memories. You’d think that the self-styled auteur, whose oeuvre entirely shaped by the eternal and venerated grounds of his native New York, would use that as his leaping point for a heady, interior probe into his creative and psychological meta-narrative. But he’s just as kinetic and inspired in the snow-drenched wild. Perhaps there’s meaning in the distance. The very title, Siberia, is an evocation or confession that some space is required to realize his deeply personal and, at times, profound vision.
Familiar viewers will see that Ferrera is unpacking a lot here but the film resists simplistic analysis, even for completists. While catholic guilt, addiction, sobriety, civic corruption, marital discord, infidelity, generational disconnect are recurring themes, Siberia is a whooshing swirl of psychological complexity that defies interpretative obviation. Naturally, Willem Dafoe is magnificent and offers up a performance perfectly tuned to the task unachievable in any other actor’s hands in bringing this script to life. Throughout, you don’t watch him but study the inventory of deeply sown wisdom that is his face.
One of Siberia’s distinctions is that it’s a massive departure that eschews genre in every manner of the word, yet it is still embossed with Ferrera’s temperament and artistic fortitude. Don’t try to figure it out. Just find a way to connect to this dizzying hypnodrome of a movie.