Streaming on MUBI India, Australian director David Easteal’s hauntingly relatable film, The Plains, is a daring piece of art that smashes the boundary between documentary and fiction
Last Updated: 12.09 PM, May 06, 2023
STORY: A middle-aged lawyer’s daily commute back home after work forms the premise of this unique narrative that draws your attention to the regular vistas of Melbourne, talkback radio and mundane conversations, almost in equal measure.
REVIEW: Most often when we speak of our desire to get lost in the mundane, it’s probably about stepping back from the daily drill and staring at the clouds passing by. But what are the odds of you getting increasingly intrigued by the commute of a 50-something office-goer, when all you get to see is the back of his head and hear only his side of the conversation, as he speaks to his ailing mother and ageing wife? Almost none? Then, grab a seat and watch The Plains on MUBI. Australian filmmaker David Easteal’s hauntingly relatable gem of an art dishes out what can be described as one of the most extraordinary road movies ever made that slyly shatters the boundary between a documentary and a feature film.
Filmed almost entirely from the vantage point of a passenger in the middle of the back seat, everything about The Plains is quotidian. Yet as an audience, you derive a voyeuristic sort of an urge to eavesdrop anyway. It’s, in fact, quietly meditative. At around 5pm every day, Andrew Rakowski (playing himself) - a middle-aged lawyer working at a community legal centre in Melbourne - walks up to his car parked outside his office and drives home through the city’s outer suburbs. The talkback radio is his only companion, as he sits in silence while slowly heading out to the busy main road in peak-hour traffic. He then first gives a call to his 95-year-old mother Inga Rakowski (self), who suffers from dementia, and is now looked after at a care home, and then he calls his wife Cheri LeCornu (self), who after a long sabbatical is now trying to get back to work by taking up part-time assignments.
Occasionally, Andrew gives a lift to a younger colleague David (the director of the film), who although seems to enjoy Andrew’s company, is not much of a conversationalist himself. In their long drive back home, they do not talk much about politics, world economy or the weather. Instead, you get to hear nuggets of each other’s personal life. From Andrew’s German roots and hippie days to David’s plan to go to the US for a break, and then eventually write an exam and join the bar. Oftentimes, it’s Andrew who comes across as the more curious one among the two, but he is also someone who’s quite open about letting his co-passenger take a peek into his own whereabouts. There are times when their conversations take a subtle emotional and philosophical turn too, as they dabble in topics like staying committed to one person the entire life, letting go of the idea of having kids or the guilt of not spending enough time with parents.
There are also a few sudden cutaways in the narrative, when your focus is diverted to shaky drone footage of the vast plains in the countryside, where you suddenly meet Cheri in a few shots. But these are only taken to give you an aural perspective of Andrew’s hobby to document his leisure time with his wife at the farm, which has alluvial soil and a dried up lake. While you try to decipher what you see in those clips, you are brought back to the back of a car, and fed on more prosaic commute conversation. And this goes on for three hours!
A curiously innovative and daring piece of experimental cinema, The Plains tricks you to observe, listen and be intrigued. The film breaks the monotony of the usual components of a structural narrative - plot, attraction, theme, acting and climax - with a seemingly dull but profound style of storytelling.
VERDICT: Neither documentary nor fiction, The Plains is a cinematic wonder, no less. David Easteal - who is also known for his movies Monaco (2015) and You or Me (2007) - reinvents the idea of setting an entire film inside a car. And it clicks! An exceptional style of narrative dovetailed by non-actors, you must hitch a ride on this road movie.