The singularly idiosyncratic casting of Charlotte Rampling and Willie Nelson as long-married ex-vaudevillians who operate a combination trailer park, horse ranch, and performance venue could be enough of a novelty factor to attract some curiosity seekers to “Waiting for the Miracle to Come.” But the movie itself, a deliberately paced fantasia of remembrance and reconciliation, is likely to divide viewers into disparate camps of the enchanted and the enervated in a modest digital release from Spotlight Pictures.
Filmed four years earlier on locations in and around Nelson’s ranch in Spicewood, Texas — including the preserved set for a fictional Western town constructed for “Red Headed Stranger,” the 1986 film based on Nelson’s platinum-selling album — “Waiting for the Miracle to Come” is the first dramatic feature written and directed by Lian Lunson, previously best known for such musical documentaries as “Willie Nelson: Down Home,” “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man,” and “Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle.” With help and encouragement from mentors and former collaborators — including Bono and Wim Wenders, who are credited among the executive producers, and Leonard Cohen, whose song provides the movie with its title — she mounted this small-budget labor of love with the obvious intent of telling a simple yet resonant story unbound by specifics of time and continuity, but infused with strains of melancholy, regret, and unreasonable hope. Call it a dream play, and you won’t be far off the mark.
Supernatural undercurrents sporadically reach flood level as Adeline Winter (Sophie Lowe), a young woman who dreams of performing as trapeze artist and tightrope walker, takes heed of a letter left by her recently deceased father (Todd Terry), and follows his directive to visit a ranch in Ransom, Calif., where she might find a goldmine. What she finds instead are the aforementioned ex-vaudevillians, Jimmy (Nelson) and Dixie Riggs (Rampling), owners and operators of “The Beautiful Place” — hardly a gold mine, but rather a haven for abandoned horses, a home for two trailer park residents, and a place where Dixie occasionally dolls herself up like her idol, Marilyn Monroe, and sings for locals in a small theater near their memento-stuffed, Christmas-light-bedecked house.
The early scenes are so ponderous and fraught with portent that they resemble nothing so much as exposition in a low-budget horror film from the late ’50s or early ’60s. Indeed, there is a pronounced “Carnival of Souls” vibe to the first meeting between Adeline, whose sluggish demeanor suggests a wide-awake sleepwalker, and Jimmy and Dixie, who are at once welcoming and evasive.
At first, the older couple claims to know nothing about Adeline’s father, or why he would have directed her to their place. But it only takes a little while — although it seems a lot longer — for the metaphoric skeletons to spill out of the closet. Decades earlier, Jimmy and Dixie gave up their infant daughter for adoption, fearing they would never be financially stable enough to adequately provide for a child. The girl was raised by abusive adoptive parents — and grew up to be Betty (Sile Bermingham), Adeline’s hard-bitten and harder-drinking mom.
Jimmy and Dixie have tenaciously held on to the Beautiful Place, despite the threat of bank foreclosure, in the desperate hope that, someday, somehow, their long-lost daughter would return and forgive them. But Betty has never felt in a very forgiving mood. Until now. Maybe.
Lunson and DP Kimberly Culotta underscore the memory-play qualities of the narrative with several scenes that have the faded look of Kodachrome photos left out in the sun too long. (This stylistic flourish was even more conspicuous when “Waiting for the Miracle to Come” had its world premiere on a big screen last fall at the Austin Film Festival.) The movie is teasingly ambiguous about its time period: Cars and clothing imply that the action unfolds in the early 1960s or thereabouts, but references to Marilyn Monroe (who died in 1962) as a fan-worshipped icon indicate a later date. Ultimately, you must accept this inconsistency, too, as part of the movie’s dream logic if you want to get to the heart of the matter.
It turns out that Rampling and Nelson are beautifully matched as they bring out the best in each other. Whether together, individually, or in one-on-one scenes with Lowe, the two living legends convey raw emotional authenticity — running the gamut from anguished remorse to indefatigable faith — and interact in dozens of ways that signal their characters have spent a lifetime together.
Credit must also go to Bermingham, who makes the most of a thinly written role, and helps generate genuine suspense during the final scenes as Betty must decide whether to make someone else’s dream — and maybe her own — come true. To be sure, it’s entirely possible that many impatient viewers will give up on “Waiting for the Miracle to Come” after the first 20 minutes or so. It is equally possible, however, that Lunson will get you on her wavelength, and you’ll be sufficiently enthralled to complete the journey with her.