Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
This week the Grand Illusion is “playing” Major Arcana, a very small indie that copped an award at the Austin Film Festival. You can get the revenue-sharing details here.
This movie is sneaky—coming on like a pensive micro-indie, full of close-ups of spiders enjoying the dew and acoustic guitar songs and patient sequences of a man cutting logs to build his cabin in the Vermont woods. But Major Arcana is not the precious object it might first appear; the film has a goofed-up strain of humor and a great ear for hostile dialogue. Its people look like ordinary people, which is what they are, although the camera finds ways of making them worthy of our attention.
The cabin-builder is Dink (Ujon Tokarski), whose skills as a handyman are in direct inverse proportion to his talent at the other parts of life. He has returned to his Vermont hometown after four years of wandering; his father died recently, leaving behind a filthy manufactured home and enough acres on which to build a new place, and also to harvest the timber needed for the construction. In his time away, Dink got sober, which is more than could be said for his parents (his mother is still around, formidably embodied by the fearsome Lane Bradbury).
As Dink builds the cabin alone, he haphazardly reconnects with Sierra (Tara Summers), the girlfriend he abandoned four years earlier. She now reads Tarot cards, or pretends to, and drinks a lot. The actors are utterly different: The muscular but disheveled Tokarski is low-key and mostly uninflected (I have no idea whether he’s an actor, and this is his only IMDb credit), while the hawk-nosed, zaftig Summers is charged and ready to roll; she looks like she was born in the bed of a pickup truck, although the actress is English-born and a veteran performer. Most of their dialogue is delivered in compact, clashing bursts, which works well for this non-verbal milieu. (This is Vermont, after all, as we are reminded when Dink goes to buy an old wood-burning stove from a taciturn elder: “Does it work?” “What’s not to work?”)
The film opens with an evocative shot of the cruddy house, with Dink’s truck sliding into the frame. Writer-director Josh Melrod (this is his first feature as director) doesn’t flash any look-at-me credentials as a cinematic stylist, but he has a good sense of how to portion out the exposition and he never lets a scene drag. The ending is genuinely strong, with one especially moving passage: In the dim-lit, near-finished cabin, Dink and Sierra hang out in the murk, maybe on the verge of something or other. At one point Dink’s eyes cloud over, and the camera, fairly close on the two, casually yet firmly edges Sierra out of the frame, as we see Dink arriving at something, maybe. A beautiful moment, and a good reason to look forward to Melrod’s next movie.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.