Directed by: Julia Loktev.
Written by: Julia Loktev based on the short story by Tom Bissell.
Starring: Hani Furstenberg (Nica), Gael García Bernal (Alex), Bidzina Gujabidze (Dato).
Nica and Alex are a couple who are going to be married in the coming months. Aside from that, and the fact that they are obviously experienced world travelers, we learn very little about them during the course of The Loneliest Planet. They are in Georgia (the Georgia of Eastern Europe, not the Southern USA) and hire Dato to guide them through the beautiful, but largely barren, mountains there. At first they seem carefree – they playfully talk with each other, make goo-goo eyes at each other, and seem pretty much carefree. Than something happens out on in the mountains, and in a split second, Alex makes a mistake, and then recovers. But how does that split second change their relationship? Pretty much completely, as in the second half of the movie, all that playfulness is gone – replaced by a stony silence, before they oh-so gradually start coming back to normalcy – at least what will be their new normal – after that.
I know some critics have loved The Loneliest Planet – with its beautiful cinematography in the mountains - shot in 1.66:1, a narrower aspect ratio than most films. That narrower aspect ratio is used to great effect by director Julia Loktev, especially in the film’s second half, as the vast open spaces of the first half are replaced by ominous mountains than seem to be closing in on the characters. Some critics have liked the performances by Hani Furstenberg and Gael Garcia Bernal as the central couple – said to be American, although neither sound American (probably because Furstenberg is Israeli and Garcia Bernal is Mexican). Loktev is clearly in their love with their faces, which she lovingly frames through the movie, trying to pick up on the smallest of movements. Personally, I think non-professional actor Bidzina Gujabidze is better than either of them as Dato – perhaps because he is non-professional, and is playing a version on himself, he seems more comfortable – more natural than either of the two pros.
But I must say, I was bored by The Loneliest Planet. Loktev gives us no real reason to care about Nica and Alex and their story. She broadly sketches their story at the beginning, and then repeats herself in the first half of the movie – has the inciting incident half way through (which is the film’s best moment) and then repeats herself in the second half. The movie was based on a short story by Tom Bissell, and perhaps it should have been made into a short movie. There just wasn’t enough material here to keep me interested for nearly two hours.
Loktev is a promising director. Her first film, Day Night Day Night, was much better – the story of a would-be suicide bomber going to Times Square in New York. That film also provided no backstory for its main character, but was fascinating and intense throughout. The Loneliest Planet, while beautiful, doesn’t hold the same interest. I see what she’s trying for here – to make the two characters we meet in the first act question everything they know about themselves and each other in the second half because of the incident, but Loktev slows this movie too much for it to have the impact she wants.