'War Witch' director Kim Nguyen sets this simple and deeply resonant Canadian romance as far north as human beings can stand to live.
There are only two reasons why anyone would live as far north as the aptly named Apex, a tiny town in the Canadian province of Nunavut, which is accessible only by plane and so cut off from the rest of the world, it might as well be Mars. Either folks were born there and had no other choice in the matter, or else something really terrible happened back home, and they ran away to the farthest place they could possibly find. Either way, this remote arctic outpost reeks of broken dreams and desperation, the sort of town you might find in a Western — a Western set in the future perhaps, or in the same chilly reaches as John Carpenter’s “The Thing.”
In “Two Lovers and a Bear,” North Pole couple Lucy and Roman find themselves in Apex for opposite reasons, but the pair come together because they have virtually everything else in common — namely, they’re both damaged souls with unresolved daddy issues, seeking stability and protection in someone else’s arms. The forces that connect them are as stripped-down and basic as the location itself, and director Kim Nguyen spins their tragic co-dependent love story with the earnest heartache of sappy junior-high poetry, where nothing in the world matters but the connection they share, and where, apart from Roman’s ursine spirit animal (who pretty much steals the show), there’s nothing much to get in their way.
Featuring Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”) and Dane DeHaan (“The Place Beyond the Pines”) as the two lovers in question, Nguyen’s snow-white weepie is about as far as one can get — in both thematic and geographical terms — from his Oscar-nominated “War Witch,” though it does share that film’s peculiar blend of open-wound realism and near-mystical hallucination. True to their generation, Lucy and Roman look far too young to be carrying this much angst on their shoulders, and yet, when not bonding over ice fishing or snowmobile racing, they’re all but crippled by memories of their abusive parents.
Lucy’s father is long gone, but he still lingers in her dreams, sparking panic attacks every time he appears (in the form of actor John Ralston). In Roman’s case, he stood up to violent dad, kicking his father in the face so hard he broke his ankle in the process. A pretty, vaguely Leonardo DiCaprio-looking young actor with the chops to sit with a shotgun barrel in his mouth and make you believe he might pull the trigger, DeHaan is more successful than his co-star at playing the dark side of his character, and yet it’s clear from both their performances that Roman and Lucy need more from one another than they’re willing to admit.
Therapy would probably help (we can only imagine what kind of pills these two anxious twentysomethings keep stashed in their medicine cabinets), though instead they play the game of attempting to forget/ignore everyone else and to pretend that no one exists in the world but them — a strategy they eventually take literally, hopping on their snowmobiles and buzzing off into the wide blue yonder as a massive snowstorm approaches. They would argue that love is enough to keep them going, and while there’s something beautiful in the notion, the film’s finale underscores the naïveté of that notion.
Still, it’s not until Roman and Lucy have separated themselves from the tiny community of Apex, in order to focus on working things out between themselves (she has been accepted to a university biology program which would be her way of running away from a difficult past, much as Roman escaped his own in coming to Apex in the first place) that the movie really kicks in. Midway through the movie, after Roman suffers a breakdown rather masochistically designed to give Lucy the freedom to leave town, she spends the last of her savings to charter a plane and visit him in a rehab clinic, where they have urgent, animal-like sex in a spare room. For a romance that’s full to bursting with the grand, over-compensating demonstrations of ardor that young lovers make — and would therefore be of greatest interest to teen audiences who earnestly believe in such gestures — the sex scenes feel altogether too raw, too honest and ultimately too sad to belong to the same film.
More effective is the long, snow-bound sequence that follows, once Roman and Lucy set out on their snowmobiles to re-concentrate on their connection to one another. In this final stretch, Nguyen constructs a series of astonishing set pieces, ranging from melancholy (Lucy points out a herd of reindeer that followed one another to their icy deaths) to downright exhilarating (a white-knuckle survival sequence every bit as gripping as “127 Hours”). Faced with a massive storm, they take shelter in a giant, abandoned bunker that clearly dates back to the Cold War, exploring its forbidden spaces — including a control room that appears capable of launching nuclear missiles at Russia — like two naughty children.
Here in this incredible location, Nguyen actively encourages our imaginations to go wild, teasing anxieties that typically only come out in the most effective horror movies. Taking into account the surreal run-ins Roman has had with a polar bear earlier in the film (to say more would be to spoil the film’s greatest surprise), anything seems possible: Sampling a can of possibly irradiated 30-year-old Spam, the characters could wind up transforming into “The Thing,” for example, or perhaps they’re not alone in what alternately feels like the very loneliest place on earth.
Somehow, in the final stretch, Nguyen has transformed what felt like a relatively generic, un-special indie love story into something totally unpredictable, taking full advantage of the gorgeous widescreen lensing to convey the atmosphere and magic of his locations (including breathtaking footage of the Aurora Borealis). The film’s final image is one of incredible, heart-catching poignancy, one whose foundations trace back to what at the time felt like throwaway scenes in its opening minutes, and for the few who actually see this movie, the power of that ending will make the entire experience virtually impossible to forget.