I waste as much time on the web as anyone, but one thing I always avoid are those videos that careen around the internet that depict some poor schmoe being caught on camera doing something horribly embarrassing. I don't mind if local TV news reporters accidentally make fools of themselves—they signed up for the job—but my heart always goes out to the regular folks whose entire lives get reduced to one stupid thing they did one time in public. I always think about that kid who jumped out of the way of a screaming foul ball that hit his girlfriend: All I know is that his name is Bo, he has ridiculous facial hair, and, at one moment in time, he behaved like the biggest, most self-absorbed coward in the world. Bo's public humiliation allows the rest of us to sit in judgment, assuring ourselves that we would never do such a thing and would definitely have protected our girlfriend. But in a moment of instinct, are we so sure? And does that one moment define who we really are?
These questions are at the heart of The Loneliest Planet, a terrific new indie drama that hits select theaters on Friday. (It'll be available via IFC's on-demand service starting Oct. 30.) It's appropriate that the film is coming out right before Halloween; its premise sounds like the first act of a horror movie. Happy couple Nica (Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael García Bernal) are about to get married, but before that they decide to go on a backpacking trip through the isolated Caucasus Mountains in Georgia. They hire a guide, Dato (Bidzina Gudjabidze), whose English isn't so good, but he seems to know the area, so, hey, what's the worst that could happen?
And so the three of them trek out into the middle of nowhere, and because the terrain is so gorgeous but also so ominous, you're just waiting for some horrible shock to come. (If the history of movies has taught us anything, it's that young, pretty people in love traveling through the wilderness in foreign lands are going to come to a bad end.) But The Loneliest Planet doesn't spring zombies or mutants on Nica and Alex. Writer-director Julia Loktev's film, which is based on a Tom Bissell short story, is after a sneakier sort of terror.
Revealing precisely what happens in The Loneliest Planet would rob the movie of its surprise, but let's just say that this adoring couple will encounter a situation in which their seemingly indestructible bond is tested—and it doesn't quite go the way either of them expected, much to their disappointment. And like in those viral videos, because we don't really know much about either of these people before The Incident occurs, we're left to make assumptions and pass judgments about who they are. We tell ourselves that we'd act differently in the situation, but, really, it happened so fast ... who knows, maybe we'd do the exact same thing.
Loktev's last film was Day Night Day Night, an arresting drama about a rather blank young woman who goes about the task of becoming a suicide bomber plotting to blow up Times Square. In that movie, a lot of the tension came from the fact that Loktev told us practically nothing about her main character or her motivations: The not-knowing forced us to project our own biases onto this suicide bomber.
Loktev does something similar with her new movie, revealing barely anything about Nica and Alex. From the early scenes—and this is also in keeping with the horror-movie template—they seem a little too obnoxious in their puppy-dog love. They have their little cutesy inside jokes, and they're way into their PDA, and, well, you kinda wanna tell 'em to knock it the hell off. In a horror movie, that would open the door to some sweet audience schadenfreude when their blissfully happy lives are soon ruined by ugly, terrible monsters, but Furstenberg and Bernal soon twist our expectations by how differently their characters act after The Incident. In the face of new information about themselves, Nica and Alex have to accept that their relationship can never be what it once was. (And because they never talk about The Incident afterward, their long silences lead you to wonder about all the things they're not saying to each other.) Both times I've seen the film, I've taken no delight in watching their soaring, probably immature love come crashing to earth. I feel bad for them: Why should one ill-advised action undo years of commitment and passion?
The Loneliest Planet doesn't tell us how to feel about its characters—either before or after The Incident—and in that way, the movie is something of a Rorschach test for the viewer. Will the couple be better off after The Incident? Should they break up? Which of them do we sympathize with more? My answers differed from viewing to viewing, and Loktev keeps her cards close to the vest, never favoring one character over another. (Even the mysterious Dato isn't exactly the person we first thought he was.) The title The Loneliest Planet is a play on those Lonely Planet travel guides, but it's also a fair description of the desolate space in which each of the movie's three characters resides. We walk through this world thinking that we know what to expect—from a backpacking trip, from our supposed soulmate, from ourselves. And, in the span of a few seconds, we come to understand that maybe we don't understand anything or anyone. In the end, we're all far lonelier than we'd like to admit.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.