If you haven’t heard of “Southcliffe” yet, we understand. But any Playlist reader worth their salt should seek it out. Netflix snapped up this miniseries that first aired in the U.K., and played the festival circuit in 2013. It represents another feather in the cap for the streaming giant’s healthy stable of original content. This followup from director Sean Durkin, whose feature debut “Martha Marcy May Marlene” we championed, and writer Tony Grisoni (“The Unloved”), is yet another piece of visual storytelling that thrillingly blurs the line between TV and cinema. It stands proudly amongst such recent auteurist works as “Top of the Lake,” “True Detective,” “Carlos” and “The Red Riding Trilogy” (also from Grisoni). In fact, we’d comfortably call it one of the best films of 2014 so far.
The series opens on the mundane, on a seemingly ordinary day like any other. A middle-aged woman tends to her garden. She stands, gunshots ring out and a dark figure out of focus approaches. The camera gracefully pulls back to reveal she’s been shot and is too confused to realize she’s about to die. Cut to a small courtyard, a man running away from the camera. There are screams, more gunshots and then sirens.
Less than two minutes in, “Southcliffe” sets its hooks in us and never let go. A journalistic, clinical distance provides a deeply thoughtful, balanced window into a time-hopping narrative based around a terrifyingly common event these days: a mass shooting in a small town. He seemed so normal, they always say. We never saw this coming, say others. And really, how can you blame them? Who could ever imagine such unnecessary, random and brutal violence against others? This comes up in nearly all news reports on shooting sprees, yet we may never fully understand the complexity of a situation that perhaps are just not wired to understand.
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It’s for cinema to (re)imagine the terrible, to add context and artfulness to things we’d rather not deal with, or simply can’t. And it’s not far off from reality that “Southcliffe” portrays its central incident. Memories fleet and fade back and forth through the narrative’s present, past and future, all massed elegantly into four stellar, beautiful and achingly sad chapters that make up this miniseries’ three-hour runtime.
At heart it’s most akin to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s first three films, “Amores perros,” “21 Grams” and “Babel.” The story is a series of character details and moments reverberating and ultimately linked by this tragedy. Hyperlink cinema has a tendency, even in some of the more successful entries, to be overwrought, silly and heavily reliant on coincidence pushing the narrative forward, like, say, Best Picture winner “Crash.” “Southcliffe” is successful in this subgenre because it doesn’t tread old ground and is more of a minor evolution.
DP Mátyás Erdély is in fine form here, draping the frame with atmospheric and beautiful digital images, deep, muted colors and sharp textures. He also shot the great “Miss Bala.” Where the visuals in that film accounted for so much of its harrowing tension and you-are-there perspective, here he takes on a more contemplative, clinical distance that’s in lockstep with director Durkin’s style, which, even after this “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” is already distinct amongst his peers. He’s patient and trusting of the audience, achieves a tone of reverence and shows a desire to twist the audience in knots with tension. Yet there is an evolution with “Southcliffe” that sees Durkin push himself more than even the wonderful ‘Marlene.’ It comes from the deep well of emotion and care given to every character.
The entire cast is first rate, but particular accolades must be given to Anatol Yusef (Meyer Lansky in “Boardwalk Empire”), Shirley Henderson (“Meek’s Cutoff“) and Joe Dempsie (Gendry in “Game of Thrones”), while Rory Kinnear (“Penny Dreadful”) and Sean Harris (“Prometheus”) are also great as the twin pillars of the narrative. The former a journalist covering the tragedy but who also has a history with the small town, and the latter plays the gunman in the trickiest role to pull off. Thankfully, even though there are hints as to why he does it, we never get a full explanation. In the end, “Southcliffe” refuses to spoon-feed the audience easy answers, often eschewing explanation altogether. The MVP of the entire series, though, is Eddie Marsan, here getting a chance to play a loving husband and doting father who loses a daughter in the shooting. Every moment he’s on screen is impossible not to empathize for the man. Your heart goes out to the guy.
Durkin’s style works visually in a similar way to Shane Carruth‘s “Upstream Color,” especially in this series. Both are profoundly beautiful pieces of cinematic storytelling, but where ‘UC’’s visuals struck a warmer, dreamy, ambient note, “Southcliffe” is the chillier and more nightmarish side of the spectrum. Durkin’s experience as an editor (he cut his first two shorts) appears to be the reason for both his features to date sharing a similar style, since he worked with different editors for each project. There’s a reliance on match cuts, free flowing narrative jumps that happen in a single instant, connecting characters and moments together with smooth jump cuts and transitions.
All of these tools are used effectively, and illustrate that “Southcliffe” is so clearly a directed, auteurist piece of cinema. In many ways it’s about condensing the narrative to its barest elements in order to tell the richest story possible in the allotted run time. In this way, for Grisoni and Durkin to restrict themselves to four, 45-minute episodes when they surely could have broadened their reach (we really only get to know intimately a third of the shooter’s victims, the rest left to the background and mostly unseen) seems to have been the smartest move in this story’s construction. It’s no longer than it needs to be. Moments come and go. Characters are killed in one scene and back alive in a seemingly (but never truly) random flashback within the same episode. The focus is just intimate enough to be effectively harrowing and devastatingly sad.
At times, though, the sprawl can be a minor hindrance, with a few bizarre developments in the later episodes, one in which a grieving husband turns his wife’s funeral into the wedding she always wanted, and another in which Henderson almost goes full “Breaking the Waves” in a misbegotten attempt to rescue her dead daughter’s friend from what she thinks is a brothel. Yet these moments, though confusing at first and awkwardly staged, do serve to enrich the series’ thematic point that we all handle grief differently, and sometimes in strange, inconceivable and embarrassing ways. We reveal ourselves most honestly and nakedly in moments of deep grief, loss and emotional pain. So, who are we to say we wouldn’t do something weird and even crazy if we went through this?
Grief can be hard to pull off, and even harder to find an audience these days willing to go those dark places. “Southcliffe” is so effective and accomplished at this that it may be a huge turnoff for some. It manages to find that sweet spot between difficult truths and surreality that occasionally verges on otherworldly. The closest thing we can equate it to would be Yorgos Lanthimos’ bizarre and excellent “Alps,” which, despite being a completely different beast altogether, does find a similar equilibrium in its exploration of grief. Sometimes it’s a beautiful pop song that creates the deep yearning to be with a lost loved one (“Southcliffe” makes the most of its minimal score and the occasional track from Otis Redding or The Human League). Other times are more ethereal and less understandable.
We’re not naive. “Southcliffe” will not qualify as “entertainment” for some folks. We understand the impulse to avoid difficult subject matter. It’s a tough watch, but it is rewarding, and, in this writer’s opinion, highly entertaining in that it provides a brief window to others’ experiences, and does so very well. The performances are consistently vivid, the violence, focus and style intense and elevated by a perfect balance of near-journalistic remove, impressionism and fully-earned emotional heft. Trust us, it’s worth your time. [A]