Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Sam Was Here (2016)

Warning: if you can talk about this one without using spoilers, you are a better person than I am.

The late 90s. Salesman Sam (Rusty Joiner) is supposed to acquire new clients in the Mojave desert, of all places. Something’s not right at all with the region he’s visiting, though: everything – private homes, motels, whatever – is deserted. It’s not so much as if nobody’s home but rather feels as if he’d just stepped into a place right after everyone decided to leave. The only sign of actual humanity is a strange call-in radio show where people let off steam. The moderator – a certain Eddy – talks about a serial killer who seems to be roaming the area, to which Eddy regularly adds further vague and rather surreal details.

Sam increasingly loses it, holding circular monologues about his coming back home soon for “the little one’s” birthday into his wife’s phone mail box as well as his boss’s without ever hearing back from anyone. All the while, Eddy becomes increasingly aggressive towards the killer whom he soon identifies as a certain “Sam”, seemingly suggesting a lynch mob as well as the police waiting for him. So, when Sam finally does encounter someone, things turn violent.

Christophe Deroo’s Sam Was Here is a film that’ll certainly annoy at least half of its viewers because it absolutely denies its audience any final and definite explanations to what’s going on around and with Sam: there are suggestions he might be in some kind of purgatory or hell for something he has done; or that he might suffer from paranoid delusions; or that our old friends, John A. Keel style transdimensionals might be involved (Eddy would certainly fit well into the final third of Keel’s “The Mothman Prophecies”); one might certainly come up with other ideas, too. Your guess is as good as mine there, for the film doesn’t really deliver enough clues to be solved like a puzzle box, perhaps because it tries to touch the truly weird and disquieting by denying us an explanation, or rather by giving us more than one explanation none of which completely fits what we see.

I have a high tolerance for this sort of ambiguity, though even I am not completely convinced the film doesn’t lack a clearer meaning because the filmmaker just thought some scenes were a cool idea, coherence be damned. Which, come to think of it, isn’t a terrible reason to put something into a film, and even seems a bit refreshing in a time when the most fashionable scriptwriting rules are particularly prescriptive, and therefor a bit boring. Boring, Deroo’s film certainly isn’t.

On a somewhat more concrete level, the director demonstrates a finely developed sense for picturing the creepiness of large, empty spaces, as well as for the disquieting effect of places that should be populated by humans but are mysteriously empty. Deroo puts Emmanuel Bernard’s slick photography to excellent, atmospheric use there.

Later on, the film also adds a bit of paranoia, and a bit of the old ultra-violence, with a nice side-line in the grotesque. It’s not just that Sam’s isolation via emptiness is shifted onto the different kind of isolation which comes with the territory of being hunted by the few people he encounters, it’s also that these people all act not quite right, not like vigilantes as much as a mirror world idea of what vigilantes are, as if filtered through a mind that isn’t quite clear about the way actual humans act. The effect is disquieting, as is the half-accidental and increasingly violent way in which Sam strikes back.

Rusty Joiner’s performance as Sam is very fine too, starting as your typical everyman, a bit down on his luck, a bit frustrated but increasingly showing cracks that suggests abysses to his characters rather than depths.

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