It’s 5 p.m. and the day tumbles white with clouds. A car sneaks out of a parking lot and into traffic. The man at the wheel is alone. He turns off the radio and makes two phone calls: one to his old mother—”Hello Mutti, it’s Buschi”—and one to his wife. We listen to him chat as the outskirts of Melbourne flash by in a long caravan of office buildings and highway bridges. We sit behind him, in the car; all we see of his face is a slanted reflection in the rearview mirror. His name is Andrew (Andrew Rakowski), a lawyer pushing 60. For the past 13 years this has been his commute; for the next three hours The Plains keeps us in the backseat of his Hyundai as he drives home from work. This, in a nutshell, is all there is to David Easteal’s feature debut. It’s a montage of rides—eleven total—recorded over the course of a year, five of which Andrew shares with David (Easteal), a co-worker half his age, others he take alone. But this description hardly captures the startling emotional wallop The Plains packs throughout. For a film that seldom lets us step outside Andrew’s car, this is a most evocative, soul-replenishing journey; for one that just as rarely lets us look at its protagonist in the face, this is an astonishingly full-rounded, richly textured portrait of a life, epic in size and scope. 

Yet very little in the way of narrative happens in The Plains; its backstory might be richer in plot than the film itself. Easteal (a 36-year-old barrister-cum-filmmaker) first met Andrew when the two were working together at a community legal center in the outer suburbs of Melbourne. Andrew offered to drive the younger colleague home and the two hit an unlikely friendship. Ride after ride, David learned about Andrew’s wife, Cheri (Cheri LeCornu, briefly glimpsed as the star of her husband’s iPad videos), his Adelaide-based mother and her dementia, his late sister, his far-flung relatives, his dream to spend more time with his wife in their country house in the Western plains of Victoria. Andrew and David parted ways but kept in touch, and their commutes formed the backbone of The Plains, which was filmed once each month over a year, every scene loosely scripted in the weeks preceding the shoot. Loosely because conversations between the two have an organic, real-life aura. Nothing you hear feels written or premeditated: sentences die midway; words are left floating, unanswered. This improvised quality is crucial to Easteal’s project because The Plains is a journey through space and time, and one of its many charms is to witness a friendship develop right before our eyes, two men opening up about their lives but doing so carefully and parsimoniously, one little confession at a time.

This is hardly the first film set almost entirely inside a car; the setup recalls titles as disparate as Steven Knight’s Hardy-at-the-wheel Locke or Jafar Panahi’s Portrait of Tehran from a Cab, Taxi. But The Plains is far more daring and constrictive in its visual grammar. Not once does Simon J. Walsh’s camera move from its backseat-facing-forward point of view. Never—save the few videos Cheri took of his husband or the drone shots capturing both in their country house, which Easteal intersperses during commutes—does it place Andrew’s face front-and-center in the frame. Which requires non-professional Rakowski to do a lot with very little, conveying emotions through eye movements, gestures, evasive silences. It helps that his voice has a liquid, soothing quality, like the sound of something sliding side to side. Alone with David, Andrew tiptoes around his passenger with questions that grow more intimate each and every ride. “I’m sorry,” he chuckles on their first, after inquiring about the young man’s relationship status, “I ask too many personal questions.” But then the awkward silences thaw and the two men form a kind of bond where each can entrust the other with secrets. Andrew is certainly more loquacious than David, but the younger man is just as candid when it comes to his fears about the professional and romantic impasse he’s handling. Easteal’s film matches transience with catatonia: characters talk about moving on, about changing jobs and new detours, but doing so requires a fortitude that’s not easy to come by, especially not for Andrew: “I’ve left my run to too late.”

In hindsight, The Plains seems to exist in conversation with another sprawling and recent road trip, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car. Both films understand cars as confession booths, moveable shields that carve a safe space where strangers can meet and confide in each other. (And what is it about cars that makes them so primed for such heart-to-hearts? The time you’re forced to spend in close quarters with another person? Or the notion that the space you share with them is liminal, your time together finite, an expiry date that lulls you into thinking the world inside the vehicle follows simpler norms from those outside?) Andrew tells David plenty, and for every remark on nuisances big or small—a rude boss, a demanding in-law—there are others that belie the irresistible urge to forge a closeness with other humans. “We all know why we work,” he mumbles early into one of his most revealing statements, “it’s the desire for social interaction as much as anything else.”

Watching the two interact I wondered what The Plains would have amounted to had Easteal decided to change his camera’s POV to grant us the opposite sight: Andrew and David facing us, the landscape rolling behind them. I doubt it would have been anything quite as powerful. By aligning our perspective with theirs, by letting us see what they see as well as hear what they hear, The Plains turns us from spectators into passengers. No longer viewers but privileged eavesdroppers, we commune with Andrew and David on an intimate level. This is what the film nails so well and what accounts for the infectious empathy it emanates: what it’s like to share a space and time with two near strangers, to become acquainted with them as they do with one another. 

The Plains commences inside Andrew’s car and ends where it began. Things have changed, people have gone: David’s left the firm, Andrew’s car is still a Hyundai—the same model, in fact, only a different color. Three hours have passed; not a minute felt superfluous. As the screen turned black I found myself wrestling with a strange pang of nostalgia, the kind you feel bidding old friends farewell. I thought of Andrew and wondered what he’s up to. If he’s still driving the same car. If he’s still working for the same firm. If he’s still working at all or packed it in and moved to the country house with Cheri. If he’s finally basking in that feeling The Plains radiates after its long odyssey, the synths of Suicide’s Cheree reverberating inside his car: a feeling of quiet and boundless peace.

The Plains premiered at International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Grade: A

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