There's nothing remotely like a story in "A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness," experimental directors Ben Rivers and Ben Russell's patient, lyrical three-act look at a quiet man's journey through three different phases in life, but it's littered with big ideas. Rivers and Russell have toured together in the past to screen their short avant grade films, so it's no surprise the duo have chosen to collaborate on a project that fuses their sensibilities. Parts of "Spell" echo Rivers' interest in the power of landscape freed from context to immerse viewers in the mysteries of the natural world, a concept he last explored with "Two Years at Sea," while Russell's interest in magnifying the nuances of cultural evolution was most prominently illustrated in "Let Each One Go Where He May." That background manifests in "Spell" by rooting Rivers' interests in more precise human experiences. The result is a scattered tapestry of beautifully rendered concepts that's not always satisfying but impressively committed to its poetic design.
At its core, "A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness" centers on a silent man (musician Robert AA Lowe) as he shifts through three stages in his life, first living on a commune in Estonia, then an isolated log cabin in the forests of Finland, and finally as the guitarist in a black metal band during the performance that fills the final third. The directors never stray far from fantastic imagery that elevates their meandering collage, staring with the first shot, a 360-degree view of a lake at dusk set to the low sound of chanting that infuses the material with a mixture of awe and dread. The ensuing scenes explore the daily routine of an Estonian commune where various residents wander around in the nude, play with their children at the beach, hang out in the sauna and engage in rambling spiritual chatter.
It's here that "Spell" first hints at an overarching focus on the possibilities of utopia through the somewhat heavy-handed but equally provocative dialogue of the commune dwellers (including a conversation about how "the physical links to the metaphysical"). But just when these tidbits start to meander, "Spell" shifts into the tranquil setting where the man next finds himself as he spends his days wandering the woods, exploring moist caverns and fishing on the lake. With its unhurried pace, "Spell" nicely contrasts the concept of collective utopia with the prospects of solitary respite. It's a tender, perceptive device that's indisputably patience-trying in the ways that some avant garde material can be, but the elegant sound design and colorful visuals elevate the experience to the level of finely honed installation art.
In its climax, the directors find their mute protagonist covered in face paint and rocking out to a series of jarring metal compositions while a roaming camera explores the dark corners of the cramped venue. Despite a neat bit of camera trickery that finds the same shot playing back in reverse, amplifying the level of engagement by the audience in attendance, the third act feels distinctly half-baked compared to the fusion of audiovisual textures and soul-searching in the preceding sections. Still, there's enough detail in each sequence for those intrigued by the directors' approach that "Spell" unquestionably achieves its meandering aims to a largely satisfying degree. To some extent, the movie is hurt by being forced into a linear structure it implicitly rejects. It's not hard to imagine superior experience of the movie with all three segments playing out simultaneously on a trio of screens. Even so, as it stands, Rivers and Russell have certainly cast a spell that sticks.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A likely entry in the experimental sidebars at the New York and Toronto film festivals, "Spell" won't attract much interest beyond the audience already interested in the experience it aims to offer, but a small art house distributor could generate some decent business for the film on DVD.