The handiest comparison — or maybe it’s just a crutch — for describing Alistair Banks Griffin’s spare brotherly drama “Two Gates of Sleep” is to mention its similarities to the work of Terrence Malick. It certainly looks about as beautiful: The Mississippi-set account of two siblings hauling their mother’s coffin through the wilderness to her final resting place owes plenty to expressive visuals that few first-time filmmakers dare to create. Griffin makes it happen, but to what end? That’s harder to figure out.
Jody Lee Lipes’s cinematography captures the landscape of the distended journey with an advanced color palette that turns nature into as much of a character as the people seen wandering through it. But where Malick’s movies merge lush imagery with equally profound storylines, “Sleep” only has the former in check. It’s a moderately fair trade-off for this simple and gorgeous, if not gorgeously simple, production.
Griffin proves himself wholly capable of generating a mesmerizing experience fully informed by the complexity of cinematic devices. The movie contains just one entire conversation, with bits and pieces of dialogue strewn about, but for the most part it demonstrates a unique commitment to inaction — sometimes to an excruciating degree, but often for the sake of finding beauty in a certain image or sound that’s powerful for reasons no basic plot contrivance can strengthen.
“Sleep” begins with the two brothers (Brady Corbet and David Call) hunting in the woods near their home. Slowly, their routine comes together. They gut a deer, spend time with their mother, and watch the sunset. As the leisurely first act draws to a close, the mother dies, and a fleeting exchange reveals their intention of taking her body where she wanted it.
Blink and you’ll miss nothing essential about the details of their trip; nap and you might not see a violent turning point that raises the stakes of the quest. Still, the main asset of “Sleep” lies with its environment and the hardened performances within it. Corbet and Call hardly speak, never smile, and offer little in the way of details about their past. But even with no apparent likable traits, both possess a noteworthy intensity. There’s an animalistic element of danger lurking beneath those angry eyes, and it meshes well with the movie’s spectacular appearance. Each frame magnifies the isolated quality of Griffin’s tale, even when it wanders aplenty. The director can’t top the power of individual moments, but while “Sleep” may suffer from a bone-thin purpose, it’s hardly a snooze.