Originally reviewed at the 2010 AFI Fest.
“Two Gates of Sleep” is about the journey of a coffin to its final resting spot, but in a part of the world where political concerns are limited to the bickering between two brothers over the right way to bury their dead mother. Set apart from any semblance of urban encroachment, save for the lumber mill where the two brothers make a meager wage, Jack (Brady Corbet) and Louis (David Call) reside on the fringe of the Mississippi-Louisiana border where the flicker of their weak television reception just about sums up the pulse of life before their ailing mom (Karen Young) ultimately flatlines and they settle upon hauling her coffin across the river with only their hands.
First-time director Alistair Banks Griffin was originally a painter, which is evident immediately from the fact that “Two Gates of Sleep” is told in brush strokes – individual scenes of the brothers hunting deer or their confused mother as she wanders away from home are awash in the colors of the sky and the indigenous flora and bristle with raw emotion. However, as Griffin acknowledged during the post-screening Q & A, he gave up painting because he was frustrated by his own limitations and while the cinema offers him a greater canvas, “Two Gates of Sleep” shows he will need more time to understand the demands of a story since the film works far more effectively on a scene-by-scene basis than as a whole. Griffin explained that he purposefully left scenes out that detailed the growing animosity between the brothers, but when their relationship comes to a head, it is a bewildering turn of events.
It isn’t surprising that calls of pretension have dogged the film since debuting at Cannes, a reputation that wasn’t helped at AFI Fest when Griffin announced before the screening it would be the print showed at Cannes of the English-language film being presented with French subtitles, then demurred, “But then there’s not that much dialogue.” However, there’s much more to admire about “Two Gates of Sleep” than there isn’t.
The film boasts typically gorgeous cinematography from “Tiny Furniture” and “Afterschool” lenser Jody Lee Lipes, whose visual signature is so strong and vibrant it’s beginning to make me wonder about how wunderkind writer/directors Lena Dunham and Antonio Campos might be considered without him. (Campos is an executive producer here.) And Griffin actually co-edited the film with star Corbet, which likely is at least partially responsible for giving the “Funny Games” actor the full command of the screen and he is compelling to watch, even when the story being told isn’t.
Although films like “Ballast” and “Winter’s Bone” have trudged through similar terrain, the desolate enclaves of rural America that unfortunately enter the consciousness of moviegoers about as often as they have the metropolitan community at large, there is still something unique about Griffin’s attempt at capturing a feeling of isolation and saying something about the grip of tradition that drives the brothers to such extremes. The images in “Two Gates of Sleep” are crisp. Now if only Griffin could bring the same clarity to his storytelling…
“Two Gates of Sleep” opens at the reRun Theater in New York today.