A noxious — if somewhat necessary — response to the prescriptive nature of some contemporary indie cinema, Peter Brunner’s “To the Night” is not the kind of movie in which the damaged (but lovable) hero can reply on the plot to save them from themselves. It’s not the kind of movie in which a haunted (but sarcastic) twentysomething is able to slay their personal dragons by winning a dance competition, or making peace with a dying parent, or meeting a girl who loves The Shins. It’s not the kind of movie that invites you to trust in the process, so you know that even the most painful moments are productive steps towards the final catharsis.
No, “To the Night” is the kind of movie in which Caleb Landry Jones plays a tortured artist who punches his girlfriend in the face, neglects their baby boy, buys ketamine from a man with horns, and spends most of his waking hours in a violent psychotic state. It’s a frequently insufferable reminder that life is more complicated and fucked up than the movies allow it to seem, less a coherent drama than an allergic reaction to the safety of conventional storytelling — it’s as enjoyable as a rash of hives on the part of your back you can’t scratch.
Jones is Norman, a scraggly installation artist who’s obsessed with the fire that killed his parents when he was a child. All of his art has been forged by the incident (his signature piece is like… a translucent baby in a fish tank that’s bathed in red light?), and he always squints like there’s still a bit of smoke caught in his eyes. Norman isn’t a person so much as a wiry vessel for trauma, and that hasn’t changed even now that he has a child of his own. Parenting duties fall to his girlfriend, Penelope (Eléonore Hendricks), who cares for baby Caleb while Norman is busy rewatching local news footage of the blaze, or making “Hereditary”-like miniatures of the house where it happened. They share a decrepit loft on the far shores of the East River — it’s a huge place, but never big enough for Penelope to hide from Norman’s rage, which feeds on the empty space like a fire devouring fresh oxygen. It’s, uh, not a sustainable situation, to say the least.
Right from the start, it’s evident that Brunner’s English-language debut imports the same emotionally-driven approach that informed his Austrian features (“My Blind Heart” and “Those Who Fall Have Wings”). “To the Night” isn’t comprised of scenes — it’s glued together like the shards of a broken man. A fragment of Norman and Penelope celebrating his latest show is followed by one of them fighting in their apartment, baby Caleb wailing on the floor. A handheld fragment of Norman running around the city like an idiot with his visually impaired friend (Christos Haas as Andi) is followed by one of Penelope crying to her girlfriend, Caty (“The Neon Demon” survivor Abbey Lee).
There’s domestic violence, and copious amounts of drugs. There’s a hospitalization, and a handful of operatic dream sequences that make it clear that Norman is hurting — otherwise, it might’ve been hard to tell. His pain replaces any recognizable plot. The art he makes doesn’t matter nearly as much as the reasons he needs to make it. The same is true of the portrait that Brunner has painted around him: The structure, the characters, the music, the framing, the entertainment value… it all runs a distant second to Norman’s scars. There are movies about people with trauma, and movies about trauma with people, and this is most definitely one of the latter.
As Norman turns 29 and confronts the idea that he’ll soon be older than his parents ever were, the character’s actions become harder to understand. He’s repeatedly drawn to the upstate manse where he almost died, parking at the edge of the property like the burnt out husk is luring Norman back to finish the job (nobody’s made use of the land in the last 30 years? In this real-estate market? Sure, Jan). He conducts all sorts of strange experiments in and around the house, as though his process were sacred enough to justify the senselessness of watching it unfold.
So what if Norman is a self-destructive asshole who ignores his kid, punches his girlfriend, and actively endangers all of his friends? He’s an artist! He’s Arthur Rimbaud and Edvard Munch! So consumed by his imagined responsibility for one tragic event that he ignores his actual responsibility in several others. Anything to get the monkey off his back! And Brunner supports Norman every step of the way, slowly eliminating any sort of interiority from the characters around him. The film asks the extent to which people will tolerate a loved one’s trauma, but it only poses the question rhetorically. Over time, “To the Night” resolves into one of the most certain, least convincing arguments any recent movie has made about the toxicity of artistic obsession, and the extent to which it should absolve a man of his actions.
Needless to say, if Caleb Landry Jones didn’t star in this movie, you’d probably want to know why. One of the most feral and delirious actors of his generation, Jones has mastered the art of playing strung-out and self-involved (even though brilliant turns in films like “Queen and Country” and “Get Out” suggest that his bag of tricks is a lot deeper than it might seem at first). Jones’ performance as a heroin addict in the Safdie brothers’ “Heaven Knows What” is so monstrous and complete that it feels like self-harm. At the same time, the intensity he brings to each role can backfire if a filmmaker isn’t sure what to do with it — his energy can burn out if not properly kindled.
Brunner, in more ways than one, is too seduced by the flames to forge anything with them. Jones gets to ignite from the very beginning, but Norman’s feeble backstory isn’t enough to sustain him for 102 minutes. He’s consumed everything around him by the end of the opening credits, and the rest of the movie is just a collection of reheated affectations — Jones’ artistic process is almost certainly more interesting than the one Brunner invents for Norman. Of course, it’s a backhanded testament to the actor’s unique presence that he’s achieved self-parody so early in his career, but there’s only so long we can watch him blaze through every role like this. Forget the fire, it’s time to see what Jones can build from the ashes.
“To the Night” premiered at the 2018 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.