A slow-burn study of investigatory obsession and police bureaucracy, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s mesmerizing “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” plays like “Zodiac” meets “Police, Adjective.” That’s a tough combination to pull off: Neither David Fincher’s epic tale of the infamous decade-spanning serial killer hunt nor Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s minimalist cop drama come with easy answers. But Ceylan has made a similarly analytical brain teaser, rendered in patient and sharply philosophical terms.
At two and a half hours, the Turkish filmmaker’s sixth movie is also his longest and most advanced narrative undertaking. However, outlining the plot takes substantially less effort than the extensive viewing experience, as “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” only involves a handful of characters. Ceylan opens with the prolonged late-night hunt for a dead body in the countryside. A parade of cop cars drift through the darkness, carrying a group of straight-faced middle-aged men. These include prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel), commissar Naci (Yilmax Erdogan) and Dr. Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner). Additionally, they have a prisoner in tow named Kenan (Firat Tanis), the apparent lead to discovering the corpse.
Ceylan keeps details scant and instead turns up the atmosphere: His capacity for expressive images, often held in lovely, observational long takes, arguably reached its apex with the well-received “Climates.” However, his skill remains: Most of the story unfolds in heavy shadows punctuated by bright patches of light. The effect is akin to a noir rendered in oil paints.
While “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” has a certain kinship with Ceylan’s other works, it also bears a uniquely protracted rhythm that’s alternately frustrating and immersive. Ceylan uses a three-part structure, with a few short scenes serving as transitions. After the winding drive yields no results, the police take a break at the home of a local farmer whose provincial ways run contrary to their urban standards. The final sequence takes place back in town, where the team attempts to make sense of their findings and reach some tentative conclusions.
Each of these sections has a unique intent: Ceylan alternately focuses on the interior dynamics of the police force, the contrast between city dwellers and lower-class provincials, and the challenges of decoding empirical information. This final aim, which plays like the world’s most patient episode of “CSI,” concludes not with a major revelation but rather with the suggestion that answers exist in the tiny details of everything that came before. Small exchanges and passing glances imply a greater amount about the off-screen action (including, of course, that puzzling murder) than anything explicit.
This might make “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” sound prosaic, and it does run too long, but Ceylan’s screenplay contains vibrant characters and even an unlikely sense of humor. An extensive bit revolves around one of the cops forgetting to bring a body bag to the scene of the crime. Later, when Nusret mechanically dictates murder details to his assistant, the procedure halts when the investigator compares the dead man’s appearance to Clark Gable and the whole force breaks down in laughter. Ceylan’s overall style might be characterized as both leisurely and experimental, but he has a firm grasp on several genres: In addition to flashes of comedy, “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” hints at the makings of a ghost story when the prisoner Kenan sees an apparition that might be the man he killed.
Which begs the question: Did he actually kill anyone? A few passing moments imply otherwise, but nothing is certain. Ceylan ends with a lengthy, ambiguous close-up of Nusret’s face, a decision that feels anti-climactic until its ramifications sink in. He has realized something new, and we realize it with him: As a procedural, “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” implicates the audience along with its characters and the mental workout continues long after the credits roll.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? This film came to Cannes without a sales agent, despite landing a high-profile slot in the main competition. However, it still landed a Grand Prix award for Ceylan and continued along the festival circuit to great acclaim. The Cinema Guild opens the film on Wednesday at New York’s Film Forum, where arthouse audiences interested in a mature challenge may propel it to a solid reception.
criticWIRE grade: A-