Oliver Hermanus has a gift for telling stories through faces — complex arcs of hurt, guilt and longing silently emergent in the expressions of protagonists and bit players alike, and patiently observed for effect. It’s this fine-grained command of implicit narrative that balances the riskier melodramatic gestures of “The Endless River,” the South African writer-director’s potent, provocative and muscularly beautiful third feature. Fusing brute realism with heightened, fable-style irony in a study of two heartsick souls drawn together by violence and loss in a sleepy corner of the Western Cape, “River” is, admittedly, a less disciplined affair than either of Hermanus’ previous films, “Beauty” and “Shirley Adams.” Its blood-streaked brand of devastated romanticism, moreover, will prove polarizing. Still, this is a substantial transitional work from South Africa’s most vital new filmmaker in over a decade.
2011’s “Beauty,” an exquisite reflection on repressed gay desire in the Afrikaner community, parlayed strong Cannes notices into a respectable spread of international distribution, abetted by the LGBT arthouse market. Larger in scale and ostensibly more accessible, Hermanus’ latest might be a tougher sell — though the leading presence of distinctively tattooed, Claire Denis-endorsed Frenchman Nicolas Duvauchelle, in his first non-native feature, beefs up its European appeal. VOD avenues don’t rep the most ideal route for a film that has been formally conceived for the widest screen possible, with South Africa’s varied, gruffly spectacular landscape integrally showcased. Not that Hermanus has much interest in postcard imagery; in his view of the country, such beauty comes laced with threat.
A remarkable opening credit sequence positions the film, improbably, as an homage to the Hollywood western. Distinguished by 1940s-style graphic design and typesetting (not to mention playfully quaint quote marks around the film’s title), as Braam du Toit’s rich orchestral score swells and swoons, the camera lingers on panoramic views of scrubby, fence-cut grasslands that don’t look a million miles away from the American prairies. Hermanus isn’t just kidding around with such allusions: This intro hints that we aren’t heading into a world of pure naturalism, even as Hermanus’ story pivots on the realization of a fear all too real for many South Africans. Rather, outsize demonstrations of pain, fury and revenge take the film into a realm of hardened genre — shades of film noir are equally detectable here — that makes an allegorically lawless land of a crime-blighted country.
Proceedings even begin outside a prison, with a version of a scene that has kicked off many a movie on cyclical crime. At the gates, put-upon waitress Tiny (Crystal-Donna Roberts) awaits the return of her newly paroled husband Percy (Clayton Evertson), who spent four years in the slammer for gang-related activity. It’s not the happiest reunion, with Percy electing to spend most of his newfound freedom in the local dive bar, and Tiny’s unforgiving mother Mona (a sharp, pithy role for Denise Newman, the marvelous lead of “Shirley Adams”) voicing her antipathy toward him at every turn. Together, they reside in the rural town of Riviersonderend, not far from the farm where French transplant Gilles (Duvauchelle, sporting a hybrid accent that the character himself admits is “funny”) has recently settled with his wife and two young sons. “Riviersonderend,” as it happens, is Afrikaans for “endless river.”
Under normal circumstances, in a country where social integration is still in progress, Gilles and Tiny would have little bearing on each other’s lives beyond exchanged pleasantries at the local diner where she works. But through a chain of misfortune and chance, their courses collide when Gilles’s family is slaughtered in their home by a trio of masked intruders; nothing is taken from the house, leading local police chief Groenewald (Darren Kelfkens) to presume, with numbingly seen-it-all conviction, that the crime was a gang initiation rite.
The attack, including the rape of Gilles’s wife, is staged by Hermanus with a chilling blend of candor and savage grace, all sound surrendered to the stricken strings of du Toit’s score as Chris Lotz’s floating camera surveys the carnage from room to room. It’s a remarkable, challenging sequence (comparable to a chilling key scene in “Beauty”) that will attract charges of exploitation in some quarters, though it’s one instance where Hermanus isn’t resisting realism. Few South African films have represented the country’s ongoing history of violence quite so viscerally.
The bloodshed doesn’t end there, though it would betray Hermanus’ densely plotted screenplay — one that brazenly wears its contrivances to near-poetic effect — to discuss any further reveals or reversals. Suffice to say that the fallout of the tragedy subtextually brings up such heated political angles as local police corruption, albeit in a more staggered, morally contentious manner than one might expect, and unequal treatment of different races by the local authorities. The script is structured across three “chapters” named for different characters, an unnecessary affectation given that their perspectives are intercut throughout. As it progresses, however, “River” flows into ever more interior territory, as Gilles and Tiny jointly try to process (or, fleetingly, escape) the meaning and consequence of what they’ve endured. The film is less sure-footed in its overworked but frequently lovely final act, as nature is sought to subsume human ills; a coolly open ending feels like the right note in a questionable key.
Even when the helmer’s ideas lose focus, his images retain their highly suggestive clarity. Working with a new d.p. in Lotz, Hermanus indulges in high-contrast lighting and airy, multi-planed compositions that lend the film a certain formal grandeur even as it channels an earthily indigenous aesthetic in shades of stone, straw and skies that aren’t to be found beyond borders. Then there are those aforementioned faces, sensitively framed and illuminated by the camera so that viewers might consider their scars and secrets. Roberts is a particularly acute, demonstrative presence, conveying with a simple flick of the eye a most specific sense of sorrow. Duvauchelle, always a fascinating physical actor, seems more out of his element — though the same can obviously be said for the stateless character he plays.