The first impression created by Matt Porterfield’s “Putty Hill” is that of an abandoned world. Against a silent backdrop, the filmmaker displays the vacant rooms of a creaky house in suburban Maryland, where a young man has recently died. In subsequent scenes, Porterfield builds on that haunting disconnect between reality and the emptiness caused by one individual’s abrupt departure from it. Elsewhere, a group of paintball fighters dash through the woods; obscured by protective masks, their identities are indistinguishable. That literal anonymity mirrors the way characters in “Putty Hill” constantly hide their feelings, until Porterfield’s camera breaks the fourth wall to discover them.
One paintballer comes to rest behind a tree and lifts his mask, revealing the somber teen face beneath. Then the questions begin: Off-screen, the calm, steady voice of the director begins interviewing his subject. A direct line of questioning quickly reveals his role in the story as the younger brother of Cory, whose death from a drug overdose a week earlier continues to reverberate throughout the community he left behind.
Porterfield’s method of importing a nonfiction technique into his narrative has been tried countless times before, usually under the guise of the mockumentary. Here, the dreamlike fashion in which characters from “Putty Hill” transition from discussing their backstories to an unseen viewer and interacting with each other has the hypnotic effect of bringing internal monologues into a real environment. Revealing small details and offhand reflections both about Cory and the aimlessness of life in the neighborhood he once inhabited, these scenes form the movie’s grimly contemplative center. Nevertheless, one death provides the instigation for exploring many lives. Friends, family and locals with only tangential connections to the deceased contribute to this immersive collage.
Probing Cory’s legacy through his absence, Porterfield never settles for too long on a single person. While Cory’s moody teen cousin Jenny (Sky Ferreira) becomes the focus for a lot of the bottled-up frustrations about the boring, purposeless existence experienced by many dwellers of the movie’s isolated setting, Porterfield wanders through a vast ensemble. Jenny’s father, a soft-spoken tattoo artist with a multi-decade jail record, gets a chance to speak his part, as do anarchic skaters and giggly high school students. Cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier (“Murder Party,” “Septien”) captures them with long, patient takes that give each scene room to breathe. Sometimes, the gradual drift from moment to moment comes off as too cold, but Porterfield’s cerebral approach builds to an emotional payoff with Cory’s funeral, an usually festive memorial service distinguished by karaoke.
There’s a raw uneasiness to this climactic scene, in which Porterfield evokes grief through offhand glances and ineloquent tributes rather than any sort of melodramatic explosion. “Would it be bad if I didn’t cry?” Jenny asks the unseen interviewer, and others appear to wonder the same thing. Unable to express the sorrow of Cory’s passing or the larger sense of detachment from the world it represents, most of the people in “Putty Hill” try to remain disaffected. By pestering them with questions, Porterfield gets under their skin — and, in the process, ours as well.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Well-received at festivals last year ranging from Berlin to SXSW, Porterfield’s sophomore feature (after 2006’s “Hamilton”) opens at New York’s Cinema Village on Friday, followed by Los Angeles’s Sunset 5 in early April. Based on strong reviews and word-of-mouth, it might do decent enough business on those two screens to propel further attention on DVD. More importantly, it should help Porterfield gain momentum for his next project, the long-gestating “Metal Gods.”
criticWIRE grade: A-