A life of quiet desperation gets an immersive, occasionally too-quiet treatment in “Bob and the Trees,” a novel, narrowly construed character study of a Berkshires logger fallen on tough times. The star, Bob Tarasuk, is an actual forester whom transplanted French helmer Diego Ongaro met after moving to a small Massachusetts town. Expanded from a like-named 2011 short, this fictional movie casts Tarasuk as some version of himself in a narrative that clearly draws heavily on real-life details, often to powerful effect. With its pronounced docu flavor and deep dive into the nitty-gritty of the logging business, the pic won’t make much of a sound in theaters, appealing mostly to fests and arthouses oriented toward verite and New England.
First seen minding his hogs and cows, Bob is both a farmer and a prideful logger of three decades who lives with his wife, Polly (Philadelphia actress Polly MacIntyre). Perhaps yearning for retirement, he drives golf balls in the snow and, at home, watches a putting video. Acting on a referral — and against the advice of his son and partner, Matt (Matt Gallagher, the real Tarasuk’s son-in-law) — he withdraws $25,000 to pay Nat Leiland (Nathaniel Gregory) for a job on a parcel of land. In events relayed without much interest in orienting viewers — the screenplay confines much of the exposition to shop talk — this turns out to be a bad deal. A fraught confrontation with Matt ensues when the two of them discover that the trees are rotted and filled with ants, and Matt learns that his father has footed the bill.
Fittingly for a man with “live free or die” New Hampshire license plates, Bob won’t admit that he fouled up. Indeed, he gets in deeper — literally, thanks to heavy snowfall that has him logging when others aren’t so foolhardy. Additional problems befall him: When he’s alerted to a cow with a gash in her side, he initially suspects a coyote. He lies to Leiland about the job’s progress. He becomes paranoid about the motives of the colleague who set him up with the deal (Winthrop Barrett, founder of a tree service of his own; the movie’s Bob even visits the real website).
Ongaro delicately suggests that what’s more likely is that Bob is over the hill: a skillful elder statesman who’s put in honorable service in his line of work but has left his best judgment behind him. The non-pro Tarasuk gives an impressively introverted performance — a study in gruff pronouncements, self-loathing vanity and sudden gestures. The story’s resolution is at once pleasingly down-to-earth and, in a final cut cued by the rapper Immortal Technique, a little easy.
Attuned to the growls of chain-saw grinding, the sound is often ambient. Chris Teague and Danny Vecchione’s pocket-camera lensing catches subtle flashes of light on snow and steam wafting off a cow carcass; it’s more than enough to make a viewer feel a chill. (There is a no-animals-harmed disclaimer.) Visually, the film also calls to mind Kelly Reichardt’s woodland work. Per press materials, the movie was shot at the time of 2014’s polar vortex, and brief asides — like a radio news report announcing Kathleen Sebelius’ April resignation as HHS secretary — serve as both time markers and reminders of the outside world.