The distinctively frigid anomie of the upper Midwest is dissected with great warmth in “Sawdust City,” an arresting first feature with local authenticity to burn. Set in Eau Claire, Wisc., and centered around a highly charged yet rarely articulated rivalry between two adult brothers on an endless Thanksgiving pub crawl, the film seems unlikely to advance beyond festivals, but bigger stages clearly beckon for David Nordstrom, its promising writer-director-editor-star.
The debutant filmmaker’s bona fides are established fresh out of the gate, as a brilliantly staggered montage accompanies an elliptical phone conversation between Bob (Nordstrom), an unemployed young father-to-be awaiting Thanksgiving dinner at home, and younger sibling Pete (Carl McLaughlin), a Navy recruit who’s just rolled into town after basic training. It’s a smart way to start the film, reassuring the audience that they’re in sure hands for a narrative that offers little hand-holding.
Leaving his pregnant wife at home with the guests, Bob meets Pete at a nearby bar and talks him into having a drink by delivering a celebratory toast that’s a marvel of self-doubt ill cloaked by blustery barroom wit. Hulking, soft-spoken Pete is reluctant to join Bob at home for dinner, and suggests they try to track down their wayward alcoholic father, who is certain to be found at one of the town’s many far-flung taverns.
From here the film kicks into its perpetually low gear, with a structure that may seem maddeningly circular on paper but onscreen becomes gradually entrancing with its hypnotic repetition. The two enter a bar, order beers (always Leinenkugel), catch up and subtly argue, ask the locals if they’ve seen their father, leave, and repeat. Midway through they’re joined by an aggressively chatty barfly (Lee Lynch) who offers to help with the search in exchange for a few free beers.
This journey is enlivened by a pervasive sense of place, as well as Nordstrom’s novelistic eye for quiet, almost Joycean epiphanies. Pete’s description of the relative freedom of regimented military life when compared with his rambling drifter past makes a strange sort of sense. And later on, when Pete discovers Bob vomiting up gallons of “Leinies” in the bathroom, Bob claims, “I made myself throw up” — a perfect encapsulation of the character’s surly, futile defiance in the face of his own self-destructiveness and loss of control.
While “Sawdust City” nails the evocative small details, it does stumble in the bigger climactic exchanges, making what had been cleverly implicit clumsily explicit. Blame it on first-timer jitters, perhaps; any film that leaves so much unsaid could easily drift into impenetrability, but Nordstrom has littered enough hints throughout that the big reveals are unnecessary. And while Bob’s character is fleshed out to a heartbreaking degree, Pete remains a bit of an enigma, with McLaughlin sometimes mistaking simple blankness for Zen-like calm.
Lighting and photography can occasionally reveal budget limitations, especially in the nocturnal scenes, but the framing and editing are always spot-on. Voiceover excerpts from Midwest poet laureate Garrison Keillor are cleverly employed, and punctuate the film like chapter headings.