The Plains Review

The Plains is an enriching but epic meditation on life and death

4 out of 5 stars

Much of David Easteal’s The Plains is shot from the backseat of a car. Every day around 5 p.m., David leaves his job in the outskirts of Melbourne, hopping in his car during peak traffic. Some days he’s accompanied by his colleague Andrew. On other days, he listens to the radio, but more often than not, he’s alone with his thoughts. Regardless, his routine remains steadfast. He takes the same route through a non-descript industrial zone onto a highway. It could easily be anywhere in the world. The functionality of the design is utterly unremarkable. There are no landmarks, nothing worth looking at. Every day, David calls his 95-year-old mother, who barely remembers him and his wife, Cheri, to discuss practicalities. 

Running at three hours, The Plains can occasionally feel like a marathon. The itch of repetition gets under your skin. David’s conversations are jovial but strangely aloof even as he discusses his personal life. He sticks to facts and worn-out jokes. On the surface, he comes across as a man with an optimism that is, unfortunately, grating. His questions, clearly well-intentioned, are often too probing for a work setting. His stories are dull, particularly before their accumulated weight hits you. 

Yet, as we get to know David more, we understand that the mundane weighs on him, too. He has no choice but to stick to the routine. He feels an immense responsibility to those around him, even if the spark of passion for his relationships or life, in general, seems to have faded. He puts on a good face because why revel in disappointment, depression and despair? Why not try to make the best of it?

As the film goes on, the spectre of death becomes more prominent. David feels that he’s in the autumn of his life, with most of his best moments and experiences well behind him. Never bitter, he often comments to his colleague Andrew that he has so much of life ahead of him. When David questions Andrew about his relationship or dreams, one senses that David feels closed in, doomed to travel the same road until his dying days. Andrew still has many options, but David does not. David’s already lost one parent and a sister, and his mother won’t live much longer. His mother-in-law recently died. Even in his childhood memories, he dwells on stories from his father’s veterinary practice and how people’s attitudes toward death have changed. People no longer face death. They circumvent and avoid it. David has no space to mourn and no place to discuss his feelings related to his mortality.

As the film goes on, it becomes increasingly engrossing. David’s way of discussing issues reveals more profound anxieties and philosophical preoccupations. He’s torn by the image of the life he imagined and the one that he’s living. Though pragmatic and even cheery considering the creeping pointlessness of it all, that sense of insignificance only seems to grow as David’s car journeys continue. 

Not all of the film unfolds within the confines of a car. There are brief interruptions, videos mostly taken on iPads and drones by David. In it, we see the sunset and his wife, Cheri. It sheds light on parts of David that he cannot reveal or even indulge within the realm of his work. He has a sense of wonderment and curiosity. Despite his uncertainty about the point of it all, or even doubts about his relationships, we see a sense of peace. In a scene late in the film, David asks Andrew to look at videos he took on his iPad. From the backseat of the car, we watch as Andrew goes through years’ worth of videos. While David insists he mainly shoots things, not people, Andrew watches videos of Cheri and David’s mother. David might not say I love you to either of them, but there’s an attentiveness in how he’s ingrained them into his routine that speaks to an almost transcendent sense of duty. 

Few recent films capture the droning experience of modern life with as much spiritual sensitivity as The Plains. Though the film will undoubtedly test the patience of a casual viewer, the experience overall is enriching. Though, in many ways, David has achieved many of the expected milestones, he remains unsatisfied. How he deals with that dissatisfaction, with a kind of positive politeness, might suggest a type of denial, but David’s view of life is merely pragmatic. Life is short anyway, so why not find peace with who you are? ■

The Plains (directed by David Easteal)

The Plains is streaming exclusively on MUBI Canada.

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