For a certain kind of person, a new Motern movie is a big event. This very independent outfit, in which a troupe of actors make low-budget movies, usually scrappy horror films that are actually goofy comedies, for the love of creating. At the heart of this is Matt Farley and Charles Roxburgh (the director of this film), local legends with a dedicated following. It is a kind of fame that their latest film deals in. This is familiar thematic territory for the crew but the treatment is very new, in this arthouse inflected (and actually rather contemplative) work. This is not trashy horror, this is a slow burn drama that brings to mind Inside Llewyn Davis and the work of Hong Sang-soo instead of your usual Motern referents.
This is a film about the return of a musician (played, as usual, by actual musician Matt Farley (who co-writes with Roxburgh)) who left to find fame and has ended up back in his small town. There’s a scene part way through where Farley’s character, Mitch Owens, plays the song the movie borrows its name from. It is a live performance and a brilliant one, it is shot with energy (with some lovely focus work selling the overflow of emotion) and the music is great. It is a clear narrative song, an emotive one too, and it tells a new story to us, at this point. Yet, we know that Mitch reflects his life through his art, giving us a hint of an underlying pain. This song becomes a core narrative moment, one that contextualises later moments and even lightly alters our perceptions of the ending. We start to see how events, that are never directly spoken about, influenced this song and we get an understanding of a rather complex emotional dynamic. It is smart storytelling, rewarding storytelling even: a moment that works by itself, a non-expository moment, used to progress the narrative in a deft way.
It is a concert to about nineteen people, a reflection of status. This small appeal in the small town feels very personal. Farley’s performance is world weary and muted, a real highlight from an already excellent performer. It is a different mode for him, most similar to how he plays a fictionalised version of himself in his self-directed feature Local Legends. Yet, even that had a comedic bite, a self-aware silliness, that this film lacks (purposefully). The outlandish fun of your usual Motern picture is replaced with sincerity, a witty and charming sincerity but sincere nonetheless. It is a reflective film, one aware of the impact of the stars that made it, aware of the ongoing act of creation but also of the audience that greets it. Mitch is a gifted musician, he has fans and friends, and he just wants to make music. He is a surrogate for the Motern spirit and this film is the coldest take on it yet, one that sees a darker side of the fringes of fame. A film that lingers in the disappointment while still recognising the joy. It is all very heartfelt and very well realised, making it hugely successful and overtly affecting.
When those nineteen people leave the concert, though, they are excited. Ecstatic even. They experienced something and they loved it. This is the Motern fanbase, the group who get it. A group that is enough for the moment, and enough for the artists, but (as the film shows) not enough for wider interests. The industry, the commercialisation of expression, is critiqued here. But critiqued in a way that takes a back seat, as this is a human drama first, and a damn compelling one. It is a delight to see the usual actors return, and also to see familiar locations. Here, they take on a meta role, though. The idea of age and things being lost is conveyed through, actually rather beautiful, black and white photography that captures each familiar face (and place) in a more sombre way. The roles are more downbeat, there is a sense of past here, and this is a film that exists in an aftermath.
Really, this feels like a tragic b-side to Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You. The premise is similar: a local legend left, partially under a cloud, and now has returned with a want to get the band back together. This is that story told straight, the evasion of the Motern expectations being the masterstroke. We expect weird, we expect monsters and druids. Instead, we get people reflecting on the past, and a glory that either was or could have been, and that deal with the today. As always, we have quirky characters but they exist more on the edge, here. Their quirks also are presented in a realistic light, making them seem actually strange. Chris Peterson plays a mailman (it is an excellent performance), his obsession with his homemade hotdogs would be at home, and adorable, in a usual Motern film. Here, it is strange. Sinister even. The well realised tone, a sense of creeping dread, reframes our expectations and experiences. Where we would usually cut from character drama to wacky horror or sci-fi stuff, now we cut to evocative b-roll. The film is full of shots of the town and surrounding area, many locations specifically reminding you of past films. These shots linger on graffiti, on thrown out TVs or empty cans in a ditch. This all fits into a sense of past existing in the present, a sense of time having been spent and now we live in its afterglow. The compositions have a real beauty, often feeling like Ozu’s famous pillow shots and having a similar function.
This sense that it could be a horror film, an actual horror film, is really compelling. The strangeness builds in a realistic way, as we start to recognise the everyday as creepy. But, the filmmakers create this even more compelling sense of manipulation that opens up the work as a really good character study. The film’s ending is really interesting, leaving a lot still open but giving you enough to imply a wider reality. And it is a cynical and sad reality. This is a reflective work and a bitter work, but not overwhelmingly so. The sense of creation, of joy and a sense of humour is at the centre. It is just that the edges are so elegiac, so melancholic. It is reminiscent of the opening section of The Great Gatsby, a film about the foul dust that floats in the wake of our dreams. Heard She Got Married understands the fragility of dreams, perhaps even Yeats’ famous request to tread carefully, lest we tread on his dreams. But there’s a darkness here, a depressive side to the projected fun. This film is that side, a mature and thoughtful work with enough of what you expect from the filmmakers but also with so much subversion. This is another excellent film from Roxburgh and Farley but one that is so great because of such different reasons.