A primal tragedy rendered with exquisite imagery and very little dialogue or exposition, Andrea Pallaoro’s “Medeas” is a striking debut feature that will fascinate some viewers and exasperate others. This tale of an isolated Southern California ranching family mutely dealing with a crisis — literally so, in the case of a deaf wife and mother played by Catalina Sandino Moreno — is as mannered as it is minimalist in all things save visual beauty. Strong critical support would be needed to put this rarefied item into theatrical circulation; home-format exposure is likelier, but also less advantageous, since the pic has much to gain from being seen on the bigscreen.
The focus is almost exclusively on a large family that lives and subsists on a cattle stockyard. With a single important exception, other people are so completely absent that one wonders how the kids and wife seem to have so much free time with no apparent hired hands around. (Wouldn’t they be doing chores from morning to night?) The owner, of both the ranch and the clan, is hirsute Ennis (Brian F. O’Byrne), a middle-aged white man who’s devout, obviously a hard worker/provider, and a loving father, though also one who can sternly lay down the law when irked. There’s a tension between him and his younger Latina wife, Christina (Moreno), that takes some time to discern, in part because these folks speak so little, it doesn’t dawn on us for a while that she can’t speak at all.
They have five children ranging from infancy to about 16, with another well on its way. Mostly content to wander the countryside and keep each other’s company, the kids are just vaguely aware of any marital discord. Christina is even confident (or careless) enough to bring two of them to the root of the trouble: She leaves them outside the RV where she has passionate sex with local gas-station hand Noah (“True Blood’s” Kevin Alejandro), while demonstrating increasing disinterest in and distaste toward her husband at home. Adding to Ennis’ largely silent but dangerously rising ill temper, an ongoing drought is imperiling the ranch’s finances, to the point where the local feed store will no longer advance him credit.
A secondary paternal figure, eldest son Micah (Ian Nelson), watches over his siblings while dealing with an unarticulated personal unease that at one point leads him to steal a girly mag (which he later burns) from a convenience store. Teenage Ruth (Mary Mouser), stifled by her father’s strictness, sneaks off for makeout sessions with a local boy. Curly-haired middle child Jacob (Maxim Knight) appears to be the troublemaker of the group, occasionally whispering no doubt bad thoughts into the ear of gullible younger brother Jonas (Jake Vaughn).
But these subterranean conflicts are little more than hinted at, while the film fixes its primary attention on Christina’s increasing rebellion and Ennis’ gradual meltdown. As the title suggests, this won’t end well for all concerned; as in Greek tragedy, spousal revenge will be heinously wreaked on the family as a whole. A perceptible groan was heard from the Seattle Film Festival audience when the pic ended on a note that leaves little real doubt as to what’s occurred, yet hews all too closely to Pallaoro’s ascetic approach — there’s an abrupt halt where one feels at least some emotional catharsis should be.
Nonetheless, the spell cast up to that point may well be enough for many. While he invites comparison to Terrence Malick, the writer-helmer has very much his own aesthetic — arguably unlike that of actual Malick protege A.J. Edwards, whose “The Better Angels” (also at Seattle) follows his mentor’s stylistic playbook to the letter — and it’s a gorgeous if also very self-conscious one. The desert-colors palate, the dolorous editing rhythms and Chayse Irvin’s distinctive 35mm-shot compositions (so attuned to body language that faces are sometimes left out of the frame) create a poetic, near-abstract simplicity. For lack of more conventional insights, the pic’s symbolism can occasionally feel heavy-handed. But its sum effect will be hypnotically intriguing for those with the patience required.
Granted scant dialogue, O’Bryne gives a fine account of a man incapable of relinquishing any part of an old-school patriarchal role. (Pic underlines tale’s timelessness by removing most traces of 21st-century modernity from costumes and settings — as far as we can tell, the family doesn’t even have a telephone.) Granted none at all, Moreno is beautifully, emotionally transparent, managing the ethereal-earth-mother thing with far less twirly-dancing effort than Malick’s women have of late. Teen and child performances are all very natural.
Fine-tuned tech and design package includes no original score, adding to the spare overall quality.