A perfect day for reindeer [2022] ‘Locarno’ review – a strangely moving drama with an interesting mix of dry humour, absurdism and melancholy

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Jeff Rutherford’s feature directorial debut A perfect day for reindeer (2022) carries the spirit Jim Jarmusch. At first it seems to tell the story of an estranged father and son. It’s set in the vast, rural region of the American Midwest, and a place in the 1990s where people used brick-like cell phones. But the beautiful monochrome cinematography (by Alfonso Herrera Salcedo), dry and deadpan humor, the intersection of everydayness and a dreamlike feeling, and finally the depiction of lonely people awkwardly pursuing their need for connection, kept reminding me of different Jim Jarmusch works. At the same time, it is far from an imitation.

Jeff Rutherford creates a beautiful portrait of two people struggling with personal failures, deep-seated fears and isolation. He nicely strikes the balance between irony and sympathy. The earlier exposes the characters’ flaws, while the later makes us empathize with them despite it; probably because their vulnerability, inability to communicate and self-loathing feel very human. It is also interesting for the film to bear the name of the animal that is endangered in North America and elsewhere. Caribou are also known for their phenomenal migration patterns – something that gradually gives us a layer of meaning in relation to the narrative. Although it took me some time to get used to the mid-way switch in the narrative, it kind of makes sense in the end, and it could be better in a rewatch.

Caribou

A Perfect Day for Caribou takes place over a day in the rural wilderness. It starts and ends in a large cemetery. But the camera also moves through dense forests, hills and open plains. The stroll through different landscapes is juxtaposed with the central father and son characters reluctantly and intermittently navigating their emotional landscape. Herman (Jeb Berrier) is an alcoholic, an absentee father and an elderly man who has been unable to hold on to anything in life.

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When we first see him, he’s sitting inside his truck recording a tape for his long-estranged son, Nate (Charlie Plummer). Herman has lost the will to live. His partner, Tracy has kicked him out and Herman is moving around in the truck he stole from Tracy, which is filled with all his belongings. Before he kills himself, he wants to leave the tape to Nate. It is the last wish of a father who does not want to be remembered by his son only for his absence. The story as well as Berrier’s fine understated performance reminded me of Bruce Dern’s character in Alexander’s Payne’s Nebraska (2013)

Jeff Rutherford establishes his minimalist and slightly skewed narrative framework, while Herman delivers his taped monologue. The human mind works in strange ways, especially when weighed down by loneliness and depression. The way we express ourselves on such occasions can be very scattered. This is how Herman remembers his life experiences through seemingly random events involving his own abusive father, failed marriage, his newfound love of painting, and Caribou.

Herman’s verbal recollections are visually interrupted by an image or two from his memory. The memory image is also as static as the character’s reality. Sometimes it’s not even a memory, but words that have been metamorphosed into a visual, thanks to one’s own imagination. For example, Herman talks about the instance where his wife wanted to ‘set him on fire for adultery’, which is followed by an image of a burning figure. This weight of memory and words (our own personal history) is deeply felt throughout Herman’s fragmented narrative and later as well.

Herman suddenly receives a call, surprisingly it’s Nate aka Nathaniel. It has been more than a decade since their last meeting. Nate arrives at the cemetery, accompanied by his young son, Ralph (Oellis Levine). His wife Sandy works at WinCo. Nate now works as a janitor at the same school he attended. Ralph suffers from some kind of disability that has not yet been diagnosed. The boy wanders around the cemetery, stuck in his own world with no means to express himself. It is not much different for the adults. We gradually learn the details of Nate’s life and about his failed marriage or the anxiety of being a young father. But the initial communication between father and son is anything but awkward. Like any encounter between an estranged parent and child, the bridge of conversation is tentatively built over the current of uncomfortable silence.

They talk about trivial things before moving to confess the feelings and conflicts that are plaguing them. Naturally, father and son maintain a stoic facade, still wary of showing each other their vulnerability. After a while, Herman and Nate notice that Ralph has run off somewhere. This sets off an unusually long stroll through the desert. Nate gives Herman a box he found in his mother’s home with his father’s name on it. Herman carries it around like that box is literally his emotional baggage of being an absent father.

A Perfect Day for Caribou uses a simple narrative setup to consider various aspects of human life. It is a film about new beginnings. One father doubts his own ability to care for his son, while another father comes to terms with his guilt in failing to protect his son. There is plenty of intergenerational trauma and inheritance in the form of physical disabilities. This one particular afternoon in the lives of Herman, Nate and Ralph may not completely change their perception. But in the image of young father and son basking in the waning sunlight, there is hope. And the old father may be clinging to his life, even as he sits alone in the dark forest, pointing at himself.

A Perfect Day for Caribou is also a film about love and companionship; our longing for it and our inability to express it. As an endangered reindeer who has lost his herd, Jeff Rutherford shows us the social animal called man who suffers in isolation. As I already mentioned, it is all observed from a detached gaze that focuses on the absurdity of the situation. Rutherford keeps almost everything in his monochromatic world in sharp focus.

Also read: 20 Best Black and White Movies of the 21st Century

The stoic faces and bodies of these characters seem to adapt to the vast yet inert atmosphere. Therefore, the moments where they try to express themselves and connect with each other lead to either dry humor or a touching moment. One humorous example I enjoyed was father and son encountering an achingly lonely female hunter (Dana Millican) in the woods. There is also the strangely touching scenario where the three generations of males stand in a triangle and pass the ball to each other. It was a fleeting but significant image that showed the connection between each other.

In the end, A Perfect Day for Caribou could be seen as a film about escape. People want to escape from the heavy cages of their memory and loneliness. Nate wants to escape from his own fear of a terrible future. Furthermore, we witness a literal escape of a prisoner in the countryside. In this way, I feel that the film unfolds on both the metaphorical and real level. This may be largely due to how Rutherford guides us through this uneven landscape and uneven communication. At the same time, the filmmaker balances gracefully between the absurd, the symbolic and the real.

Overall, A perfect day for reindeer (95 minutes) is a calm and restrained film that deals with the themes of fatherhood, memory, identity, loss and love. There is deep sadness and beauty here that permeates each of its static frames.

½

A Perfect Day for Caribou appears on 2022 Locarno Film Festival

Trailer

A Perfect Day for Caribou (2022) Links: IMDb, Letterboxd
A Perfect Day for the Caribou Cast: Charlie Plummer, Jeb Berrier, Dana Millican, Oellis Levine and Rachael Perrell Fosket

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