The River Used to Be a Man” fits loosely in the tradition of past solo-survival tales from “The Naked Prey” through “Into the Wild” and “127 Hours,” but with a more detached, cerebral approach that is intriguing, if not for everyone. Conceived by lead thesp Alexander Fehling, who co-wrote with first-time feature director Jan Zabeil, this arrestingly spare feature follows a German traveler whose tour of an unnamed South African nation turns harrowing when he loses his guide. Pic is a wild card in commercial terms but could conceivably reward adventuresome distribs in niche play.
Long, silent prologue follows the film’s nameless protagonist (Fehling, “Goethe!”) as he drives day and night into an alien rural landscape, at one point seemingly crashing into cattle, but without harm. Arriving at a riverbank, he leaves his SUV and, either by arrangement or accident, hires an elderly fisherman (Sariqo Sakega) to take him for a boat ride, though he sleeps through most of it. They make camp some miles away and, after they’ve exchanged the few words of English they share, the 30-ish tourist explains he’s an actor. This seems utterly meaningless to his host, who cryptically explains they are now guests “on the land of all the animals,” vulnerable to possible attack by an angry elephant or hungry other creature.
Come morning, the tourist has seemingly had enough of the exoticism and isolation he appeared to crave. But it turns out that his companion has, simply and without violence, expired during the night. Fighting panic as well as natural elements that seemed a whole lot easier for the late boatsman to deal with, he searches lookalike marshes and empty dwellings for any signs of habitation. Narrative turns into a ghost story of sorts as Fehring’s character, by now disoriented enough to find anything logical, must lay to rest the spirit of the man who died in his company, lest that unburied soul walk the land to harm loved ones.
More akin to Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” (if not quite as challenging) or some of Herzog’s fiction odysseys than the aforementioned mainstream features, “The River Used to Be a Man” hardly exploits suspense or supernatural elements in any conventional fashion. Nor does it ask us to identify with the lead as an Everyman; Fehring holds attention throughout with an understated yet charismatic performance, but the character’s circumstances and motivations remain a closed book. Ending leaves myriad questions dangling.
While those qualities will doubtless frustrate the literal-minded, Zabeil, Fehring and the skeletal crew (Jakub Bejnarowicz is the excellent d.p.) provide others with a hypnotic cipher that casts its spell slowly, yet without a wasted moment. Adding to the otherworldly tenor is the decision to omit any music, making us pay all the more attention to ambient location sounds.