Maybe it’s just because I like country music, girls in tank tops, semi-structured improvisation, perfect titles, and drop-dead gorgeous cinematography, but the microbudget indie road film West of Her (2016), written, produced, and directed by Ethan Warren and shot in three weeks over ten states with a cast and crew of eleven people, has been haunting me ever since I saw it a few days ago. Three weeks: To put that into perspective, it took Ridley Scott a bit more than a week just to shoot Christopher Plummer’s scenes in All the Money in the World (2017) on familiar sets and locations and with the support of a Hollywood production team. And West of Her is the better film.
Dan (Ryan Caraway), utterly adrift in life, finds himself joining the underground guerilla art collective network behind the (supposedly nonfictional) Tromsø tiles, and he’s paired with Jane (Kelsey Siepser) to travel cross-country and secretly place these tiles at various arbitrary locations. Early in the film, Dan tells Jane about himself—product of the foster care system, has a faulty heart—but Jane keeps her cards close to her chest, only telling Dan much later about her “friend” whose baby died of SIDS. Despite being near-total strangers, they have an instant chemistry that leads inevitably to romance. But then the romance ends, and the film’s mood of intimate camaraderie upshifts to wistful remembrance.
All you really need to know is that these two fully embodied characters are on a road trip and spend oodles of time together, but the MacGuffin that enables them to do so is not without interest, as MacGuffins go. The Tromsø tiles, the film tells us, are mysterious black and white linoleum placards with cryptic poetic messages on them, found embedded into the ground throughout the US and around the world. A lot of the film’s intimate dialogue is speculation over their meaning, whether they have one, or even whether such a question is meant to be asked. Dan and Jane have differing opinions, and it becomes clear that this is the excuse Jane uses to end the relationship. It sounds unconvincing, and maybe it’s supposed to, because her leaving him is what lets him live his own life—a perplexing alchemy powered by retro sexual politics (the film was shot in 2013) and an open-ended ending, which I think is a hybrid of the endings of Pay It Forward (2000) and Shutter Island (2010), but I could be wrong.
The more interesting dialogue is filled with the vague nothings that help us feel like we connect with someone, and that in the right context can be construed as flirting: “Do you like horseweeds?” “What do you think of when you look at the Oregon Trail?” These are the best parts of the film, when the characters get to be themselves, untethered even from the necessary pressures of the script in scenes of semi-structured improvisation reminiscent of Terrence Malick; here, though, it’s less of a directorial choice and more of a cinematographic one, as cinematographer Cameron Bryson just couldn’t bear to abandon the perfect natural lighting and scenery, and they had to find something for the actors to do. This shooting strategy makes Dan and Jane not only realistic and well-rounded but also alluring, and we viewers feel like we are a part of their intimacy. This kind of thing just can’t be forced, as demonstrated when they play what Warren calls the film’s key dialogue scene (“More than small.”) strictly by the book, and it comes out smacking of vacuous pseudo-profundity. (Probably because Warren himself doesn’t know what these lines mean.)
The leads are both strong, with Siepser exuding just a bit more star power, but both are overshadowed by the cinematography and the soundtrack. Not only did the shoot span ten states, it seems like Bryson got a perfect shot in each one. He’s excellent with either tripod or handheld, and the climactic break-up scene, a cinematographically impeccable one-shot, was done on handheld in a single take. I usually add at most one picture to a review, but like Bryson lingering over his footage, I just can’t bring myself to post less than three screenshots. (Keep in mind: Even when the scenery is not the main element of a shot, the composition, lighting, and angle are still breathtaking, both outdoors and in-.)
This highlight reel of pastoral America is complemented by the heartrending nostalgia of the soundtrack, arranged by Ariel Marx, which uses six country blues songs from the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, along with two contemporary songs in the same vein. These are deployed, counterintuitively, when the going gets melodramatic, at once cutting off the legs of sentimentality and cliché, foreshadowing the end of the relationship, and linking the experience as a whole to the long tradition of pining for an American life that exists only in recollection.
One of the contemporary songs, Josh Ritter’s “Roll On,” features the following lyrics from which the film’s title was taken, and it perfectly captures the essence of the film; I’d even say that the film is an adaptation of the song.
West of her there’s a place I know
Never have been but I’d like to go
Somewhere out there I believe in me
And west of her’s where I’d like to see
West of her there’s another place
Sun shines soft on another face
And the river falls on another sea
And west of her’s where I’d like to be
Probably end up thinking that I don’t care
Get a letter from a new somewheres
I know you got what you need to be
Happy someplace east of me
(Editor’s note: I know this is slightly different from the original lyrics, but this is how Bobby Kitchens sings it on the film’s official soundtrack, which is excellent.)
The film does have a few missteps (you might have guessed that the plot strikes me as a bit ridiculous), but what works far, far outstrips what doesn’t, and by the end you’ll be sad that it’s over.
Fortunately, it’s not: Warren has a blog where he recounts (not records) the making of the film. It is fascinating and eye-opening and makes the film seem even more incredible than it already is.
Editor’s note: This piece has been published at Critics at Large.