The only thing frostier than the snowbound forest landscape of Tibetan director Jigme Trinley’s impressively lean yet woozy thriller debut is the air of mutual hostility and suspicion that exists between its four duplicitous, taciturn characters. “One and Four” may be produced by leading Tibetan auteur Pema Tseden, and may provide yet another great showcase for the befuddled expressivity and shambling physicality of Tseden’s recent go-to star Jinpa (“Jinpa,” “Balloon”). But in its genre archetypes, asceticism and icy, existential limbo so well evoked it practically freezes your eyelashes together, it heralds Trinley as a subtly distinctive voice, albeit one whose stylistic reach might, for the moment, slightly exceed his thematic grasp.
Forest ranger Sanggye (Jinpa), cutting a bulky silhouette in his bedraggled, bearlike sheepskin, wakes up from a drunken stupor in his tiny isolated cabin in the woods. A transistor radio crackles static. His breath fogs in the air. And though he is alone, a bag hanging from the rafters squeaks on its chain as though someone has just moved past it. Already, Ding Ke’s erratic score, which has its generic passages but is mostly an eccentric, atonal pleasure, is establishing a feeling of unease, with vaguely menacing drones brewing behind twanging strings that sound like Ennio Morricone got his hands on a zither while in a bad mood.
And already, the camerawork, from Tseden’s regular cinematographer Lv Songye, has given everything a gently lurid, horror-tinged edge: Slightly fish-eyed close-ups distort the images, making us subconsciously question how much of what we’re seeing can be trusted and how much is the product of Sanggye’s groggy imagination, especially given his tendency to write about his dreams in his forest ranger’s logbook. So when a bleeding man (Wang Zheng) hammers on the rattling cabin door and nudges the iced-over tip of a rifle through the crack, we share Sanggye’s disorientation and wariness.
The man claims to be a Regional Forestry Police officer, on the trail of a poacher who led him into a car chase along slippery, bumpy forest roads (a cleverly mounted action sequence we see play out in flashback) until the car crashed, killing the officer’s partner. Sanggye immediately suspects the man himself of being the poacher, until the two venture out to the crash site and a detente forms. It’s only temporary, though — soon the two are joined by Kunbo (Kunde), the unscrupulous messenger from Sanggye’s village, who had rocked up the night before bearing booze and bad news, resulting in Sanggye’s hungover and heartbroken state today. Finally a fourth man shows up (Darggye Tenzin), also armed and also claiming to be a cop, and the stage is set for a four-way standoff, with each man suspecting the next of lying about being the poacher or the poacher’s accomplice.
The cabin does occasionally feel like a stage on which a borderline-Beckettian absurdist fable is being enacted, though quite what is being allegorized is never very clear: Trinley doesn’t seem to have much of a political agenda, and the social commentary that veteran Tseden embeds in his offbeat, novelistic dramas is all but absent. At other times, the film plays like that game where one person in a group is assigned the role of “murderer,” and the others all have to find out who he is. Only here, in this blizzard-bound cabin with four men, four guns, an ax and a haul of antlers and fox pelts in play, the standoff soon starts to feel Tarantino-esque: the denouement of “Reservoir Dogs” playing out in a “Hateful Eight” setting.
But Trinley isn’t ripping anyone off, and certainly does not suffer from Tarantino’s predilection for talkiness. If anything, he uses this slender generic framework not as a vehicle for snappy dialogue and violent set-pieces but as a means to explore the possibilities of expressionistic visual storytelling. Here he’s abetted by Daktse Dundrup’s excellent art direction and a production-design approach full of odd but unshowy quirks: stopped clocks, grimy fingernails, stale bread hardened and frozen to the texture of bone.
If “One and Four” is at times more a filmmaking exercise than a fully formed film, it’s because underneath all the impressive craft there’s not a whole lot of substance. But the texture is so convincing you can almost overlook that emptiness, especially when it’s all done with a sly wink and a mordant sense of mischief. Which, if you didn’t catch it on the way, certainly is proved by the dramatic yet irresolute ending, one that manages to be both definitive and ambivalent, and that leaves us smirking at the suggestion that as cosmically bad a day as Sanggye has just had, tomorrow’s going to be even worse.