Update: I dedicate this post to Anton Yelchin, who passed away in June 2016. He was a very talented young actor and I was looking forward to more of his work.
It’s said that novelists are not very good at writing screenplays of their own books, mainly because they can’t abide the drastic changes which are often necessary to bring the page to cinematic life. That was not a problem for The Driftless Area, co-written for the screen by author Tom Drury and director Zachary Sluser. The book has been stripped down to its essentials in order to enable visual storytelling; the order in which events are presented has been changed; and even the metaphysical element differs.
In my post on the book, I described the plot this way:
The book tells the story of Pierre Hunter, a young Midwestern man who is cast (yes) adrift after the deaths of his elderly parents. One day a beautiful woman named Stella saves him after he falls through the ice. How lucky that she was there! But soon we realize that luck had very little to do with it, and that Stella is both more and less than she seems. Meanwhile a thug ironically named “Shane” tracks down Pierre with intent to kill…
The book has a leisurely way of telling Pierre’s story; it begins when Pierre is still in high school, visiting his girlfriend in the hospital. She complains of the bright, noise-making lights outside her room, so each night Pierre goes to the locked breaker box outside, opens it, and turns off the lights nearest her room–until he is caught. But when the electrician fixes the lights, the one right outside the girlfriend’s window mysteriously burns out. Such is Pierre’s life: he experiences alternating bouts of unusually good and bad luck. But is there such a thing as luck? Or does everything happen for a reason?
(Some spoilers follow.)
The film begins in medias res, immediately drawing the viewer into the central conflict: Pierre is hitchhiking after his car breaks down. He holds a potted Rosmarin rose bush which he has bought for his new girlfriend Stella. A pickup truck stops, but the driver demands $20 in “gas money.” Pierre reluctantly agrees. On the way, the driver begins talking rather unguardedly about a “brother” of his who is driving to San Antonio with a load of ill-gotten cash. When the driver (the dimwit Shane) realizes he has said too much, he rudely ejects Pierre from the car and takes his rose bush. Pierre angrily throws a rock at the truck as it pulls away, and against all odds he hits Shane in the head, knocking him out. He finds Shane’s bag of cash in the wrecked truck, and impulsively takes it.
Thus begins Shane’s odyssey to recover the money and wreak a terrible vengeance on Pierre. Meanwhile Pierre gives the rose to Stella, the mysterious woman who saved his life after he fell into a well (not through the ice, as in the book). But Stella is “caught between worlds,” a ghost, if a very substantial one. Her true life ended abruptly when the very same Shane, on a job for his criminal boss Ned, burned the house she was staying in. Now the time is out of joint, and Pierre’s life has been temporarily saved so that he can set it right.
Pierre (Anton Yelchin) has never quite found his purpose. Both book and film capture his sense of incompleteness, the paradox that he is drifting aimlessly through life, yet firmly anchored in the town of Shale, his home in the Driftless Area (a geologically spectacular region of the Midwest that the glaciers missed). Instead of seeking a career after college, he returns home to Shale and takes a job as a bartender at the Jack of Diamonds. He has no family, and only a few old friends in town. So it’s no surprise when he falls for the luminously beautiful Stella (Zooey Deschanel).
Ultimately, Pierre recognizes that his purpose in life is to right the wrong that was done to Stella. He is no longer adrift. Yet fulfilling his destiny requires that he surrender himself to unknown currents, up to and including the possibility of dying young. The novel is full of philosophical musings about time and fate, some of which make it into the film. Pierre reads a book suggesting that “time doesn’t exist, that everything that ever happened or ever will was here from the start.”
The film wears its philosophy lightly. The characters speak in lucid, spare, almost aphoristic language. When Carrie breaks the news that Pierre’s high school girlfriend is dumping him, he wants to know why. She says:
“There is no why, Pierre. It is what it is.”
“What does that mean?”
“Think about it.”
“Of course it is what it is. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be.”
“Well, it’s a very popular thing to say.”
Is “it is what it is” an empty cliché? Or does it have a profound meaning? Everyone in the film seems to function on the principle of “wherever you go, there you are.” They live in the moment, but maybe there is simply no other way to exist. All the characters have a certain Scandinavian, Midwestern quality of matter-of-factness, of unflappable being-there. This Chauncy Gardiner quality often leads to humorous exchanges. One of my favorite bits in the book (unfortunately cut from the movie) is when someone says, “It’s a common misunderstanding about depression that it has to do with something depressing.”
The screenplay wisely singles out key characters from the book, augmenting their roles and focusing on their relationships . On the one hand, we have Pierre and his friends (local poet Carrie and Jack of Diamonds chef Keith), who are “nice” Midwesterners.
On the other, there is the dimwitted but persevering Shane and his shady associates. Shane’s patron Ned is a middle-aged but hard-boiled rental car dealer with a side business in methamphetamine and miscellaneous crime. His other employees are Lyle, an easygoing young man, and Jean (Aubrey Plaza), whom he keeps on hand to “bump up” the male customers to more expensive cars.
Jean is by far the most intelligent of the three employees, and the obvious heir to Ned’s business. But in “Ned Land” men run things, and women have other jobs. When Shane spends the night at Ned’s after losing the cash, Jean is sent to sexually service him. Instead, she ends up sitting on Shane’s aching back, and helping him figure out how to track down Pierre. Jean sleeps with Shane eventually, at a time of her own choosing, and on her own initiative. This is one of the things I liked best about the film. It does not gloss over the realities of Jean’s position, but she is no victim.
Both the “nice” and the “not nice” characters are fully realized, recognizable individuals with complex personalities. The one exception is the mystic Tim Geer (Frank Langella), who inexplicably knows the truth about Stella, as well as what fate has in store for her and Pierre. With his white hair, intense gaze, and potted bonsai tree, Langella is suitably numinous and mysterious as Tim Geer, but he has few scenes and we get no sense of the character as a real person.
Additionally, the film errs by not explaining why Stella has a substantial physical presence even though her body has been incinerated in the fire. In the book, Stella was initially a ghost but took possession of the body of a brain-dead woman in a hospital. Drury and Sluser seem to have felt that exposition of Stella’s metaphysical state would have been too confusing for viewers. Instead they make Tim Geer dose Stella with “herbal” supplements and prescribe weight training to “strengthen” her. This simply doesn’t make sense, especially given the film’s ending, which I will not reveal here.
There is the further complication that the karmic retribution scheme outlined by Tim Geer does not add up, at least not under the assumption of a just and moral universe. Vicious as he is, Shane never intended to kill Stella, and is quite unnerved by the fact that he has committed the act in error. He reproaches Ned (who ordered the arson) with failing to provide complete information, but Ned refuses to take responsibility. Indeed, Ned owes the debt on Stella’s life, as surely as Shane does–if not more. But Ned is not the man destined to pay the price. Fate, the film seems to insist, is far from just.
Ironies abound as the clash between Pierre and Shane approaches. Pierre’s surname is “Hunter” and his role is to track down Stella’s killer, yet it is Shane who resolutely stalks Pierre. The name “Shane” recalls the hero of the 1953 Western, yet the character Shane lacks all the redeeming qualities of Alan Ladd’s morally ambiguous gunfighter. (That he somehow manages to be an appealing antihero is a testament to the brilliant acting of John Hawkes.)
The Driftless Area engages the Hollywood Western as well as the Samurai genre with which Westerns interacted so fruitfully. Aware of the inevitability of confrontation, Pierre cleans his shotgun and anticipates that he may be outnumbered. When his antagonists (Shane, Ned and Lyle) demand that he reveal where the money is hidden, he leads them to an old orchard, knowing that their car will fall into a pit designed to ward off cattle (a booby trap reminiscent of The Seven Samurai or The Magnificent Seven).
This film is impossible to pin down to any one genre or style–neo noir, magical realism, Western, Beckett-inspired dark comedy, existentialism. Perhaps this is why it received mixed reviews (leaning toward the negative) and went straight to video. But it is well worth watching for the impressive cast, who inhabit each character with conviction. Especially if you have ever lived in the Midwest, you will recognize the personality types (if not the landscape–most of the film was shot in Vancouver B.C. rather than the real Driftless Area). The inhabitants of Ned Land are more interesting to watch than the “nice” contingent, but after all, yin and yang can’t exist without each other.