Initially a proficient micro-budget character study with promises of suspense, “Beyond The Hill” squanders its tension by hitting repetitive notes and devolving into a heavy-handed parable. Emin Alper’s little bag of tricks can’t sustain an entire film and no amount of beautifully-photographed landscapes make up for the fact that movie is essentially a slow-burn without the burn.
The family reunion taking place on Faik’s farmland property isn’t so genial — now that he has an audience, the old man wastes little time in vocalizing his disgust with the nomads that roam his acreage and destroy his crops and wildlife. Those in attendance have their own problems: Nusret, the son, is a widower with his hands full raising kids; Zafer, the older boy, has mental problems which cause him to hallucinate; Caner, the younger teen sibling, lacks responsibility and maturity. Completing the group of misfits is Mehmet, a sharecropper of Faik’s land who often finds himself the recipient of the elder’s condescending attitude.
Nevertheless, the weekend isn’t a total bust, and all try to find common ground to bond over. After touring the land with his brother (who imagines military officers sneaking through the woods), Caner convinces his grandpa to give him rifle lessons. While shooting they encounter Sulu (Mehmet’s kid) traveling with his dog, and Caner “accidentally” greets him with a bullet in his direction. None are injured, but Faik berates his grandson for the misfire and quickly concludes the lesson, immediately joining Mehmet in slaughtering a goat for supper. They strip the animal and are startled by a tiny, random rockslide from a nearby mountain — an event that incites suspicion of the nomad troublemakers. Faik storms off in a huff; later the men regroup over a fire to get sloshed, with Mehmet’s wife Meryem preparing food in the senior’s hut. The youngins quickly get bored and defect from the festivities, Caner taking the rifle and Zafer sinking deeper into his troublesome mental state. Drama quickly piles up: Mehmet overhears Faik belittling him to Meryem, Caner has a standoff with Sulu, men posing as soldiers convince Zafer to join their cause, and Nusret forces Meryem into fornication. It all commences with two gunshots — one hitting Sulu’s dog and the other striking Nusret. To them, the nomads are the obvious culprit, and they duly prepare for a head-to-head confrontation. Little do they know that the actual guilty party lies within their ranks.
Many directors have carved a career out of gradually stretching the rubber-band until it finally snaps, resulting in a genuinely engrossing experience with a satisfying climax. Alper successfully builds subtle tension with distrustful glances and frustrated behind-the-back venting, but every altercation that results from this is either orchestrated off-camera or left ambiguous — moves that are initially strong, but are continuously used and become a broken record. Betrayals start piling up and any violent move is blamed on the scapegoat roamers — but why would the victims go along with this story? Not only is it too convenient to have every character afraid to speak up, it seems very contrary to their character. After Caner kills Sulu’s dog, it becomes common theory that those unseen villains were the perpetrators… but Sulu has absolutely no reason to go along with this reasoning — though if he does, it enables the director to keep prolonging things and plant equivocal tension. Alper is essentially breeding suspense to birth suspense, and this behavior is both tiresome and entirely unrewarding.
The film’s destruction of momentum and eventual downfall also has a lot to do with the director’s insistent message, that the family’s enemies are not the concealed evildoers sabotaging Faik’s farm, but each other. On a macro level, the characters are purported to represent Turkish society, where inner conflict and rash judgements are creating a destructive environment. It’s a bold critique of the country and a very important statement by the filmmaker, but its significance should not come at the price of narrative or even true human conduct. Certain elements make more sense when keeping this intent in mind — such as the aforementioned problem of people keeping unrealistically quiet concerning dire situations, likely representing Turkish people reluctance to speak up on a myriad of predicaments — but in the grounded reality Alper so patiently constructed it makes no sense. It also seems kind of odd to have a grand statement regarding human society where the people meant to represent this aren’t acting like real people, but just props to further an idea. With any movie attempting to make a commentary, there needs to be a careful balancing act to avoid this kind of thing, but ‘Hill’ sways too far to one side and almost feels pompous. In fact, its motive becomes so obvious that it reaches a rather ridiculous level — which includes a too-confident finale involving a goofy patriotic song meant to be ironic. This writer isn’t Turkish, but this end point feels incredibly patronizing.
“Beyond The Hill” starts off well — it’s visually impressive, with the focus on the open territory and unreliable grimaces giving a clear feeling of isolationism and paranoia — but its thriller maneuvers become incessantly redundant and the dopey resolution caps an overall exhausting experience. To its credit, not many films have anything to say at all — but if only the filmmaker chose a more consistent, subtle way to raise his points, it would have made a world of difference. [C-]