American cinema has been fairly thin on the ground this Cannes Film Festival. Outside of three of the out-of-competition slots taken by Robin Hood, Wall Street and the new Woody Allen, it's only Doug Liman's Fair Game in the official selection. Critics' Week and Directors' Fortnight are similarly starved.
But there are some local gems to discover in those sidebars, and it's in the latter we find Alistair Banks Griffin's Two Gates of Sleep. A stoic tale of a pair of brothers whose mother dies, it's one of the more artful films at an already incredibly artful festival, and presents a decidedly more mature side of American cinema.
Jack (Brady Corbet) and Louis (David Call) are the backwoods brothers whose steadfast commitment to their isolated life forces them to eschew the advice of the local sheriff and begin a journey on foot with their mother's coffin to take her to a specific burial site.
The brothers shun civilization and, were it not for the occasional intrusions from the modern world we'd be none the wiser about the timeframe in which the film is set. Their life, and journey, takes place in America's wilderness, and the countryside becomes a third character in the film, at turns both hero and villain.
It's at least 20 minutes into a modest 78 minute runtime that the first lines of dialogue are exchanged, but no waterfall of words is ever unleashed thereafter, and for the most part the characters' only utterances are each other's names.
So much of the film is left to our interpretation. Why is the mother sick? What is the purpose of this journey? What's the significance of this burial site that it justifies such a trek? These questions and more we must ask ourselves as the film unspools, for it refuses to answer any of them for us.
Instead it's up to the hypnotizing force of the environment and the two lead performances to provide reason to engage. Jody Lee Lipes's cinematography ensures every frame draws us in, and stoic moments spent listening to blowing leaves or watching water dance down river connect us with the primal landscape.
And while the brothers may seem to go out of their way to shun any emotional interaction, Corbet and Call do a remarkable job of implying, if never explicitly stating, their characters' intent. We acknowledge, even if we don't necessarily understand, why they're taking this journey.
There are shades of Terrence Malick about Two Gates of Sleep's beautiful marriage of character and location, though even Malick gives us more to work with on a story level. Alistair Banks Griffin's restraint within the telling of his tale will alienate many who'll try and fail to engage with the film. But that's because this form of storytelling is so inherently alien. Exposition is everything, we're told, but Two Gates of Sleep dares to expose very little.
That confidence in an unfamiliar form is what makes Banks Griffin's piece so worthwhile. This is his debut feature, and announces a director with a true singularity of vision and a steadfast refusal to conform. In an age in which many of our most promising young talents tread the Syd Field path to Hollywood banality, this sort of director is in short supply.