By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
One of the advantages of being a world cinema fan is that no matter who you meet, you always have something to talk about. Yeah, they probably know Transformers, but what’ll make them buy you a beer is if you can namedrop Yorgos Lanthimos, Emir Kusturica, or Nuri Bilge Ceylan like a boss.
Boss Level: Master
Because there were a lot of Turkish shipbuilders where I was living in South Korea, Ceylan conversations have landed me more than a few beers, so I’m ashamed to say I only get around to seeing his 2011 film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia now. The film follows a night and a day in a murder investigation in rural Turkey, as the murderers lead the police, DA, and medical examiner on a quest to find where they buried the body.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a slow, slow film.
Why would I toast that, you ask? Because its genius lies precisely in this slowness. This is a film set in a place where nothing really changes, where every field and fountain could be any other in a 30 km radius, and where this tale of passion and violence has been told before, and will be told again.
Beyond that, it’s important to note tha the script was based on one of the screenwriter’s true experiences as a rural medical examiner. Ceylan’s goal is to be as realistic and truthful to both characters and scenario, and show how seismic events in people’s lives can occur during the most banal of times for them. Life isn’t a soap opera, it’s often a slog, and when drama hits, it often comes out of the blue of an otherwise normal sky.
This deliberate approach also allows for some sneaky, subtle character development, which is also accentuated by the actors’ guarded authentic performances. Yilmaz Erdogan and Muhammet Uzuner in particular are excellent. There’s also room for Ceylan and DP Gokhan Tiryaki’s truly stunning cinematography to breathe. Their subtly creeping camera, mesmerizing close-ups, stark wide compositions, and incredible use of light and darkness (goddamn, those headlights!) brought the best of David Fincher to mind.
As did Justin Timberlake’s out of left field cameo.
A last raise of the glass to the sound design, which eschews music entirely to envelope us in the beautiful and unsettling audio of the environment and activity of the characters. The final scene in particular makes its mark aurally, sticking with you all the more by favoring sound over image.
This is along, monotonous, meandering movie, but as I explained, that’s precisely the point. What you can take exception to, though, is how rooted in misery the film is. Basically everyone has a tragic backstory, the cumulative effect of which is a bit too much. Having even one relatively content character would have actually strengthened the film’s themes, as a point of contrast, or even by showing a different, more profound amount of change.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a gorgeously rendered, incredibly mundane, timeless tale of crime and punishment.
Take a Drink: every time someone calls someone ‘Arab’
Take a Drink: whenever the headlights are redirected
Take a Drink: whenever Kenan mean mugs
Take a Drink: every time the death prediction story comes back up
Do a Shot: for every failed attempt to find the body