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Long Walk, The (2019)
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by Jay Seaver

"A man should listen to his ghosts, even when they don't speak."
5 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL 45: A fair amount of people might think "The Long Walk" takes too much time to get to the good stuff, as the really tricky genre material doesn't show up until halfway through. It's a fair critique if that's all you want from the movie, but it's a rich experience getting there.

It opens about fifty years in the future, with an old man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) scavenging parts from an old, wrecked motorcycle. He has a reputation for being able to see spirits, one with a basis in fact: The girl who wrecked the motorcycle (Noutnapha Soydara) has been with him since he was a small boy (Por Silatsa), as her body was never cremated. In the 2010s, she was the closest thing he had to a friend, trapped as he was between an angry father (Brandon Hashimoto) and a sickly mother (Chanthamone Inoudome); in the 2060s, he's approached by Lina (Vilouna Phetmany), a young girl who had left for the city, to find out if her missing mother has died. Soon, these timelines begin to cross, and the hermit becomes tangled up in the world around him in more ways than one.

The team of director Mattie Do and her husband, writer Christopher Larsen, do something kind of interesting in how they shift the timeline on this story from past/present to present/future but do not use a technological means for having the protagonist become unstuck in time; it unburdens the story from any colonial baggage it might have picked up even accidentally, letting the filmmakers ground the film in Laotian tradition without having to write around ubiquitous westerners who will try to explain things scientifically. There are still some around, in the present, of course, installing solar panels that are of little practical use to a farming family, but Lina's modernity and uncertainty with tradition, for example, are her own, not the result of external changes. It's an odd situation, sliding the timeline forward so the audience doesn't get caught up in nostalgia or other ways of either discounting or romanticizing the past.

Do tells an intriguing story of sad, kind of selfish isolation here, one that ultimately turns inward in frightening fashion. For a large portion of the movie, it plays out in somewhat conventional if heightened fashion - a young boy with litle life outside his parents loses one and is basically abandoned by the other never learns to connect with others, instead retreating into the company of spirits nobody else can see. The filmmakers see a way for this to be potentially sinister even before the chance to encounter himself as a boy starts letting him tighten his circle, and once that kicks in, those who come to this looking for a time-travel story will marvel at how nicely the film is constructed. There's genuine horror to be found in the shifting timelines and impressive attention to detail; Do does good work in getting big impact out of small things, and subtly changing the look of the film between the present and the future so that we can traverse the gap naturally but still know where we are. This part of the story is done well enough tht some will wish it was the whole film. Underneath, it's more than a puzzle; it's an acknowledgement that loneliness can't be solved unilaterally, and that good intentions can be twisted.

The film is anchored by very solid performances by the actors playing the same person at both ends of his life, letting one easily imagine the shape of the 50 years in between. Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy is especially terrific for how his older man feels self-isolated, with even his warmer comments toward the start able to feel less empathetic in retrospect. He's not exactly cold, but there's an interesting duality in the last act, a horror of the person that he's become even though he also makes it seem very natural that the man doesn't exactly fight the changes he finds in the timeline. It's reflected in Por Silatsa's portrayal of the man as a boy, burdened by what his parents place on him but also kind of detached. There's something similar but opposed in intent to what Noutnapha Soydara as the mostly-silent ghost; death has provided a different way for her to be an outsider, her own empathy a trap she is powerless to escape.

There are a few moments when the tight plotting and the atmospheric spirituality of "The Long Walk" don't quite mesh as well as they could, but more when they do, enough to make it a step or two better than "a genre movie that aims higher". It's smart and empathetic, so much so that the elements which would seem only shocking in another film arrive quietly and earn more than a bit of reflection after the film ends.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=33485&reviewer=371
originally posted: 02/19/20 14:28:41
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