Sundance Review: The World to Come
When a film begins with voiceover, I immediately become wary — while I may not be quite as allergic to the tool as some of my fellow critics, too many films rely on it as a crutch, with only a few filmmakers able to elevate the usage past a ceiling of inoffensive. I needn’t have worried: from the opening moments of The World to Come, director Mona Fastvold is in complete command of tone and Katherine Waterston’s pervasive narration only serves to deepen the emotional weight, giving the film a novelistic — yet still beautifully cinematic — texture that makes it one of this young year’s best offerings so far.
Set on the American frontier of the mid-19th century, The World to Come confines itself to the study of two couples, whose lives intertwine as they are brought together by chance — or perhaps by fate — and molded by tragedy and love. Abigail (Waterston) and Dyer (Casey Affleck) are more in line with what you might expect from a pairing from this time: suffering from great loss, they nevertheless seem on the surface to be the sort of stoic, nose to the grindstone pioneers who are simply looking to survive and make a living for themselves. Their relative solitude is upended, however, by the arrival of Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and Finney (Christopher Abbott), each of whom is more unpredictable in their own way — sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
The tale of course evolves into an exploration of the relationship between Abigail and Tallie, one far more intimate and deep than those between the women and their husbands. Waterston and Kirby are simply luminous, inhabiting their characters with longing and conflict that deepens with every moment they’re on screen. Abigail is a role tailor made for Waterston, who feels utterly at home within the period confines even while she embodies the desperation that comes with the need to break free of societal chains and the ecstasy that builds when the promise of an open door appears over the horizon. Kirby, on the other hand, feels inherently more anachronistic (despite her fluency with the flowery yet natural language that makes up the bulk of Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard’s screenplay, adapted from the latter’s short story), but to a point — the contradictions symbolize the pull between the life that could be and the one that exists in the day-to-day.
Though Waterston and Kirby are the beating hearts at the center of the film, nearly every other element succeeds in elevating and complementing their story. Affleck channels his particular brand of internalization to great effect as a man beaten down by the world around him and Abbott yet again — it seems as though we’re singing his praises near-constantly at this point — steals every scene he’s in with a presence that’s magnetic and dangerous yet from an action standpoint is still generous; he never demands the spotlight but instead lets it come to him naturally and when it’s in the film’s best interests. Fastvold knows exactly how to use each of her actors’ unique talents and also shows off a keen eye for visual and auditory storytelling, stunningly realized by Andre Chemetoff’s beautiful 16mm cinematography and Daniel Blumberg’s clarinet-heavy score.
Despite the devastating currents that lie just under the surface, The World to Come features so many moments of captured bliss and self-actualization that it more than justifies the melancholy nature of the endeavor. Though the film may see its characters looking to the future, longing to escape the realities of the past and the present, the film’s immense compassion and staggering beauty has me instead longing to return.