Director Jeff Rutherford on His Feature Debut, Locarno Player ’A Perfect Day for Cairbou’

A Perfect Day for Caribou
Credit: Locarno Film Festival

Two men occupy diagonal ends of the poster for Jeff Rutherford’s first feature film, “A Perfect Day for Caribou.” One hangs suspended in space, like a kite held in the air, but with cassette tape instead of rope. The tape spools down into a dictaphone, held by a man with a reindeer head.

This absurdist image is illustrative of the film, in which a father finds himself tethered to his son, despite attempts to depart from these family ties. As the film unravels into a meditation on memory, loss and abandonment, interspersed with uncanny cutaways to, for instance, men on fire, audiences may realize that “A Perfect Day for Caribou” is intent on building an intimacy with the visually absurd.

Premiering at the Locarno Film Festival, the film portraits an extended encounter between Herman (Jeb Berrier) and his son, Nate (Charlie Plummer). They grapple with their relationship against a vast landscape as they spend the day meandering across great meadows, trudging through a graveyard – navigating the intimate geographies of their own grief. Sharing the process of crafting the story, Rutherford comments: “I had this impulse about this father and son being in the middle of nowhere and it taking place in one day.”

The black and white film, written with Rutherford’s frequent collaborators, Plummer and Berrier, in mind, is textured with dream-like nostalgia. Alfonso Herrera Salcedo, the cinematographer, frees the characters to wander across the screen, sometimes following them slowly in tracking shots as they get devoured by their surroundings. He captures the immense landscape against which the story unfolds in a range of extreme wide shots. And yet there is a tension between this alluring expanse of landscape and the compact 4:3 aspect ratio framing it. The enlarged depth of field seems to lure the audience into the world of Caribou, but it bars them from completely being immersed in it.

Rutherford shot the film in Oregon where he also filmed his previous short, Rainbow Pie. Oregon, he says in conversation with Variety, “is inherently striking if photographed a certain way – it has the potential to be otherworldly.” In order to achieve this otherworldliness, he made the decision to drain the landscape of color, explaining, that “for me a film being in black and white inherently shifts the scale towards magic and surrealism, because it’s not the way most people see the world.”

As Rutherford breaks from realism, so the present of the film is interrupted too. Here and there, the film takes flight from the two men walking and talking in various tableaux vivants. Rutherford wanted “to make room for variable takes” with these images, and intended them “to feel like physical photographs” in line with the theme of memory written across the film. While Nate and Herman dwell with difficulty on family history – in circular, if not stilted, conversations – the film itself is more romantically melancholic for the past.

Caribou is set in a “pocket of the nineties,” although Rutherford didn’t want to announce it. “I felt like placing the film in this time that wasn’t totally discernable would help people find themselves in it. I wanted it to have that vintage feel to it.”

The film is in part lugubrious in its longing for obsolescent objects, in its yearning for years before iPhones (with which the crisis of the film would otherwise be more easily solved). As well as this, however, it seems nostalgic for a time when two white men might, without question, take centre stage to discourse for an hour and a half on the struggle of living, of being. Whether audiences are impatient with this scenario or, conversely, find comfort in it, the film explores the stagnancy experienced by these characters with sensitivity.

Co-produced by Kyra Bailey, Joseph Longo, and Rutherford himself under the banner of Fred Senior Films, “A Perfect Day for Caribou” is an instance of a film being made possible by the stillness of the pandemic. “The film is very much a product of time and circumstance, I think that pushed the movie into existence,” Rutherford comments. Though the film is a product of the pandemic, the disconnectedness the audience may feel as the camera keeps its distance from Herman and Nate, who wander further into the distance, into the horizon, is never superficial to the story: It is, in the end, all about the effort and failure to communicate.