The repeated upheavals of one man's life shown in a supernatural and transcendent way.
A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness
The central figure of Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness takes the form of a silent man (musician Robert A.A. Lowe). The film is comprised of three acts, with Lowe providing the only connective tissue between them. We first see him as part of an Estonian commune, where members seem to spend their time relaxing or engaging in philosophical discussions. Rivers and Russell abruptly end this storyline, transporting Lowe to a forest in Finland where he tries the solitary life. When that doesn’t work out, Lowe ends up in Norway performing black metal at a bar.
Rivers and Russell don’t give too many details about background or story, opening the door for different interpretations of what their central character’s journey(s) represents. The three stories may not be continuous, but the use of an equilateral triangle as a transition between acts suggests they’re different sides of the same ‘shape,’ so to speak. What Rivers/Russell’s structure does is make for a fascinating and existential film, using form to explore different grand-scaled ideas.
Lowe has an incredibly commanding screen presence when he’s front and centre (a shot of him staring directly into the camera is soul-piercing), but the filmmakers surprisingly tend to turn their focus away from him. A viewer without any prior knowledge of the film wouldn’t know Lowe was the main focus until the sequence in Finland, as he mostly stays in the background during his stay at the Estonian commune. Even when Lowe does end up living alone, Rivers and Russell prefer to lock their camera on still life shots of nature, or keep their subject far away from the camera by only letting him be seen in long shots.
This exclusion helps create a feeling of alienation, making Lowe’s abandonment of each lifestyle feel justified rather than inexplicable. The same tactic also keeps the focus on landscapes, and in doing so highlights just how much a person is defined by their surroundings. Rivers and Russell use different formal techniques for each act; the commune is mostly handheld, resembling a pseudo-documentary; the Finnish forests is made up of stationary long shots, and the final act is done entirely in long steadicam shots. These distinct styles give each location a unique sense of beauty to them, and Rivers/Russell end up highlighting the appeal of each way of life.
While Lowe’s nameless character may not end up finding a place where he belongs, wandering off into darkness to presumably try out something else, Rivers and Russell have crafted a truly satisfying film. Watching one man’s repeated upheavals of his life, combined with the two directors’ excellent craftsmanship, evokes the feeling of something supernatural and, ultimately, transcendent. It may be somewhat early in 2014, but A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness is already one of the year’s biggest cinematic achievements.
Originally published on 4/16/14. A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness opens in New York on 12/5.