Twentynine Palms (2003)

"Extraordinary"

Twentynine Palms (2003) Review


An American photographer (David Wissak) and his Russian girlfriend (Katia Golubeva, Pola X) drift through the Southern California desert scouting for an upcoming photo shoot. Passing through vast landscapes of twisted Joshua Trees and highways, there's a profound sense of isolation and vulnerability, as though forces much larger than they are will be closing in on them. Of course, Bruno Dumont hasn't crafted a traditional horror film where a monster lurks behind the jagged rocks -- though comparisons to The Hills Have Eyes and Duel may prove appropriate to viewers patient enough to endure this stark, slow ride into peril.

The true horror emerges between David and Katia, whose relationship ebbs and flows between fierce arguments and fleeting reconciliations. Their frequent sex scenes imply desperation, as David moves in on Katia like a predator during a swimming pool encounter and lets out anguished shrieks at the moment of climax. Being in a relationship has been described by some as an act of will, and this couple's resolve is consuming them and soon to overtake them. The horror of Twentynine Palms is existential, which is to say, "What it means to exist." These characters, so private in their pain and fleeting joy, have to share the same space, and it threatens to drive them mad.

Dumont previously handled objectified dread in his police procedural, L'Humanité, where the seemingly inept detective at the film's center did very little cop work but passively took on the burdens of the world around him. But it's pushed further, and perhaps more accessibly, in Twentynine Palms. The sense of fear is more palpable as David and Katia expose themselves to danger from the elements, from each other, and from that strange outside force that threatens to break their would-be happiness. Sequences such as their brutal argument outside of the hotel at night, as a stranger's car drives back and forth (perhaps circling them), is fraught with terror on multiple levels. The grim foreshadowing of doom is highlighted by Katia floating upside down in the pool as a game; Katia asleep but pale white as a corpse in her opening shot; David stressing over a left-hand turn in the tense opening shot.

Moment to moment, Twentynine Palms places the audience in a mood of heightened anticipation, and the hypnotic long takes compound those fears. Since the focus is on a relationship, there's ample room for an audience to project their innermost concerns and doubts about love, trust, and hope. For all their squabbling, David is likeable in a slacker-like way, bemusedly trying to figure out the secret codes of women. Katia frequently speaks what seems like nonsense to David, and during a key scene says that she hates the ice cream she's eating but also loves it. David's deeply confused reaction is understandable. But he has his own secret doubts, not all of which he voices -- looking at other women; wondering about shaving his head close like a regimented, puritanical marine. In one of the more telling images, David pleasures himself while watching an episode of Jerry Springer (about molestation), then professing that he's disgusted with it. What we say, what we do, and what we feel all seem to be different things; and there's a horror found in that, too: the fear of not knowing ourselves.

Twentynine Palms is provocative in that it arouses contemplation on that gray zone between good and evil, but it's as emotional an experience as John Carpenter's Halloween, and even more pared down to the essential. Horror fans take note: It builds to a climactic act of violence that will give them their money's worth. But that scene of violence, oddly enough, gave me a feeling of relief after nearly two hours of waiting, waiting, waiting. At last, David and Katia's relationship gets exposed and they show their true faces. That leads to a second shock ending that's as uncompromised, unfair, and chilling as the profound and political notes that close George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Welcome to one man's personal apocalypse, which erupts like a nuclear bomb from inside the individual.

Aka 29 Palms. Not to be confused with the dreadful 2002 29 Palms.

Love in the sun.



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