Well! Somebody has been taking notes from the Terrence Malick playbook! Ryan David’s directorial début Seattle Road feels like a frantic synthesis of all the more frustrating elements of Malick’s oeuvre, in particular that sneaking suspicion one gets about halfway through his films that they might not be as deep or profound as they want to be. The film opens with a traditional Malick montage of bizarre, barely related imagery. Somber chamber music plays as a bare-chested man digs a hole in the desert, pausing to wipe his brow and set his hat in slow motion. Cut to a vibrantly blue beetle on a plant. Cut to a young couple holding each other, both staring vacantly beyond the upper right-hand corner of the screen. I kept expecting a sudden field of sunflowers. But alas, they never came.
I’ve always had a soft spot for cinematic train-wrecks that erred on the side of experimentation and ambition. I unironically adored Sophia Takal’s miscalculated Always Shine (2016), a bizarro thriller I giddily described to my fellow reporters at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival as “Ingmar Bergman’s Persona if it ended with a killing spree.” Even more recently I gave a positive review to Kyle Broom’s Tabloid Vivant (2015), an enigmatic erotic horror flick that was one part art history lesson, two parts bad peyote trip. One of my personal mantras is that I’d rather see a glorious disaster that sincerely tried that a phoned in piece of mediocrity. If you have to fail, fail spectacularly and boldly. Give me something I’ve never seen before.
And Seattle Road certainly tries. Here is a film with the gall to follow a young couple named Adam and Eve as they abscond to a rural apple orchard to focus on their art. What’s more, it has the audacity to have an amateur psychologist holding a book entitled “Abnormal Psychology” point-blank tell them not to fall “into the relationship templates of their biblical counterparts.“ Here is a film where shots of men in business suits float in front of lava lamp projections as Adam and Eve bond over their favorite children’s books. Here is a film which treats us to a music video juxtaposing a half-naked Adam spraying paint all over wall-sized canvases, with black-and-white footage of him learning to shoot a gun.
Here’s my issue with Seattle Road: it merely goes through the motions of esoteric profundity. For example, it will often switch between aspect ratios, sometimes several times a minute. But is there any rhyme or reason to it? Any way it helps the narrative or creates an atmosphere? No. It’s an empty stylistic flourish that most viewers won’t catch. It models itself after the story of Adam and Eve, but has no idea what to do with it beyond surface references. They never get kicked out of the apple orchard or punished for seeking some kind of knowledge. They don’t doom anybody with their actions nor have any children. They’re just two pompous, self-absorbed, sociopathic, self-centered yuppies in a self-destructive romantic relationship. If the film had just been about that, it might have been a second-rate Xavier Dolan film instead of a fifth rate Terrence Malick.