The “dead time” of the daily commute comes alive in “The Plains,” an absorbing documentary-drama hybrid that places viewers in the car of a middle-aged Melbourne lawyer during his drive home from work during the course of a year. Skilfully creating an engaging and likable protagonist without fully showing his face until the three-hour running time has all but elapsed, David Easteal’s first feature is a thematically rich and quietly compelling portrait of a man at the crossroads. Although an extremely difficult commercial path lies ahead, this epic-length existentialist road movie should enjoy a strong festival run following its world premiere at Rotterdam.
Occasionally punctuated by views of flat, treeless plains that give the film its title and shed light on the central character’s life choices and relationships, “The Plains” is essentially a single-location drama. Almost the entire film is seen through the lens of a camera fixed to the back seat of a car driven by Andrew Rakowski from his office in southeast Melbourne toward a home that is never revealed. Only in the closing segment do we see more of Rakowski than his profile or part of his face reflected in the rearview mirror.
A Melbourne barrister with four short films to his credit over the past 15 years, Easteal serves as writer, director, producer, editor and actor in a story drawn from his friendship with the subject. When both men worked at a community legal center, Rakowski would occasionally give Easteal a ride home, engaging in conversations that have been re-scripted and filmed for this enterprise. In half the 11 homeward journeys depicted, Easteal (31 years old in the film’s timeframe) occupies the passenger seat, while the rest find Rakowski traveling solo. It is remarkable how fresh and spontaneous the entire film feels: Viewers unaware of the production background would likely have no idea they are watching reconstructed reality.
At first glance it may not seem appealing to spend three hours with a middle-aged white man who seems to have all the trappings of comfortable middle-class life. But Easteal is quick to give audiences reason to care about Rakowski and invest in the personal and professional details of his life. Early in conversation with David, Rakowski talks about his long and happy marriage to wife Cheri (Cheri LeCornu), who, though referred to constantly and frequently called during commutes, is barely seen and never heard.
Like many couples, Rakowski and Cheri have had their ups and downs, including a difficult two-year period in the 1990s when Rakowski worked in Los Angeles. Their decision not to have children was “a philosophical choice” that neither regrets. Regret and pain are more evident in Rakowski’s voice as he talks about the death of his sister many years ago, as well as the impending passing of his 95-year-old mother — who is suffering severe dementia in an aged care facility in Adelaide, some 450 miles away.
As Rakowski’s phone conversations with his beloved wife and in-car chats with David continue, a picture emerges of a man who is traveling long distances but feels like his life momentum has stalled. “I can’t keep doing this, all day every day,” he says to David. “At the end of the day, what’s the point?” His observations will be keenly felt by viewers at that stage of life when the loss of one’s parents brings one’s own mortality into sharp focus. Both men are good company on the road, with stimulating stories to tell and plenty to say about the relationships that have played important roles in their lives.
The powerful visual link between Rakowski’s past and present is drone footage he and Cheri have filmed of the house and 1000-acre property they own in Horsham, a rural town located roughly halfway between Melbourne and Adelaide. The happiness and contentment of the couple in this wide-open space sits in stark contrast to the grinding repetition of Rakowski’s daily drive through traffic-clogged streets. Whilst showing their reality of having neither children nor parents, this footage also sounds a genuine note of optimism for the path their lives might take once working is no longer the dominant concern.
“The Plains” doesn’t require traditional dramatic turning points or earth-shattering revelations for its narrative propulsion. It is by gradual accumulation of detail and subtle adjustments in tone and delivery that it becomes compelling and enriching. Viewers may never see Rakowski’s facial expressions clearly, but small changes in his body language and speech patterns are all that’s required to know how he feels about his past, present and possible future. Easteal’s filming method also highlights the very particular and sometimes strange nature of holding conversations in cars. Even the most deep and meaningful discussions are held facing forward, with only fleeting eye contact.
With some lovely dry humor dotted into Rakowski and David’s car chat, and scripted talkback radio segments providing commentary on the state of things in Australia just prior to the pandemic, “The Plains” achieves the not inconsiderable feat of making three hours of viewing fly by in what feels like half the time. All technical aspects are spot-on, and terrific use is made of the underground classic “Cheree” by New York synth-rock pioneers Suicide.