It’s a lonely and unforgiving road to take, but daring filmmakers often like to box us into challenging places. Michael Haneke has made an entire career based on bracing confrontation, and some of the best films of 2014 were engrossingly austere and demanding in presentation and form (“Under The Skin,” “Foxcatcher,” Enemy”). But we rarely see such taxing audacity from first time filmmakers. Making his debut feature-length effort with “Take Me To The River,” Matt Sobel borrows a page from the uncomfortable school of filmmaking, but colors it with his own peculiar, but distinct, perspective. Controlled and self-assured, Sobel’s mysterious film is interested in the odd sensations of confusion, misperception, and misunderstandings. Played out like a genuinely strange waking dream, “Take Me To The River” plunges you into the cloudy waters of “what the fuck is going on?”
On a Nebraskan farm, a large, but unassuming family reunion is taking place. But sticking out of place far more than anyone else is Ryder (Logan Miller from “The Bling Ring”), the son of the Californian family led by Cindy (Robin Weigert) and Don (Richard Schiff). The artsy Ryder is out of the closet and wants tell his extended family, but his anxious mother warns him that this judgmental, Red-State community won’t be anyhere near as approving as the progressive culture he came from in Los Angeles. The issue tabled for the moment, but with his bright red short shorts, deep V-neck t-shirt, and flamboyant yellow sun glasses, to the residents of the farmland, Ryder still looks a little queer.
While the adults and teenagers snicker and whisper under their breath, the children adore Ryder, in particular nine-year-old Molly (Ursula Parker, who plays Louie C.K.’s daughter on FX’s “Louie”), the daughter of Keith (Josh Hamilton), Cindy’s brother. Enamored, following him around like a puppy, Molly eventually convinces her father to let Ryder play with her in the barn where they go to look at bird’s nests. But something goes wrong. The little girl comes running back screaming from the byre with a bloodstain near her crotch and a maelstrom of accusations, blame, anger, and questions erupt. While Keith is ready to rip Ryder limb from limb, the audience asks: was this a sexual assault, a rape, an accident, a cut, a premature menstruation? Ryder is genuinely baffled at what occurred, and while the whole incident has the vague feeling of a sexual encounter of some kind, no clear answers are settled upon, aside from suspicion against the adolescent.
But the damage is done and the Californian outsiders are left even more alienated from their heartland relations. Elements of mysterious harassment being to surface against the family, so when a suddenly apologetic Keith unexpectedly invites Ryder to have dinner with Molly and his family, fear arises and the motives become dubious. What unfolds is an unnerving encounter with this family that leads to the unlocking of some long-buried secrets.
A genuinely unusual film that will rattle, confound, and maybe frustrate some audiences, Sobel’s movie possesses a dream-like quality of unease, but features no dreamy aesthetics, and this is perhaps the purposeful, off-putting trick. Presented in mostly straightforward fashion, at least on the surface, something is still amiss, but like a hyper-real dream where one can’t tell if they’re awake or not, you cannot place what that element is. The closest relation to Sobel’s film may be Lucrecia Martel, the Argentinian director who creates an a distressing world of disquiet via sound and a fractured approach to film grammar (she’ll purposefully subtract establishing shots and other key visual identifiers to disorient the viewer). But even then, Sobel’s specificity is very much his own, and it’s uncomfortable and occasionally maddening.
The movie possesses a coiled tension and a potential for violence vibrates on the edges of a frame like a headache. Sobel sometimes misjudges keeping his audience in ambiguous stasis and strains the viewer with claustrophobic shots that suggest terror around the corner and yet never pay off. If fact, if “Take Me To The River” was a lover, you’d call him/her a withholding one. The film holds you hostage in a pressurized state of limbo for most of the run time and offers little in the way of explanation or answers.
Yet, if Sobel’s filmmaking is somewhat grueling, the cast is uniformly terrific. The always-dependable Robin Weigert, who made a splash at Sundance in 2013 with “Concussion,” is great as the anxious mother with a hidden secret. Schiff is equally reliable, and Hamilton really gets to chew into his role as the intense, tightly wound redneck dad — it’s not something we’ve seen him do before. Perhaps the standout discovery is newcomer Miller, who has to play the bewildered and estranged young man at the center of all this family drama.
Sure to baffle some, it’s a weird movie that isn’t actively weird, but what’s striking about the picture is Sobel’s point of view and confidence. While the movie is amorphous and porous, it’s clear this is exactly what the filmmaker is going for, and that’s certainly bold for a first timer. As the movie impels you into uncertainty, it’s clear the director is unafraid to puzzle the viewer. This is an accomplished first feature that’s well constructed. Sobel has a great eye and he knows how to speak in the tongues of ambiguity.
“Take Me To The River” is sometimes the equivalent of a person with awkward social skills, or someone who doesn’t know when it’s socially acceptable to not break eye contact. It’s the very specific space between anomalous and bizarre and it will unsettle. “Take Me To The River” is ultimately about dark family secrets coming up out of the murky weeds. But those expecting these enigmas to break the water’s surface with clarity might want to look elsewhere. [B-]