Overwhelm The Sky begins in desert, with a sole figure limping desperately towards the road to flag down help from a passing pickup truck, as the stabbing strings on Costas Dafnis’ score evoke Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). By the time we have got back to this desert scene, well over two hours of the film will have elapsed – but in a sense, Daniel Kremer’s feature, inspired by Charles Brockden Brown’s 1799 novel Edgar Huntly, or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker (1799), is constantly preoccupied with people who have become deranged and lost on their journeys, driven in part by their unresolved feelings over long dead mothers.
Amid indistinct whispers on the soundtrack suggestive of schizophrenia, Edgar Huntly (Alexander Hero, who co-wrote with Kremer and DP Aaron Hollander) sits outside reading and surveying his uncle’s back garden, when he spots a hammer discarded amid the weeds there. Everything so far points to film noir – from the canted angles in the desert prologue and this garden sequence, to the black-and-white presentation, even to the hammer (with its punning reference to the surname of one of the genre’s best known private investigators) – yet as ‘Eddie’ takes a call from old friend Neil Selky (Deniz Demirer), it immediately becomes clear that this is if anything a neo-noir, set in an age of smartphones. It also, and rather less immediately, becomes clear that this conversation is taking place entirely in Eddie’s imagination, given that Neil – who insists it is a ‘no-brainer’ that they should meet up again – was recently killed in Golden Gate Park by a hammer blow to the head, in what police have ruled a random “mugging gone awry”.
Eddie is in something of an intermediate state. He has moved from New York City to San Francisco (where Neil lived and died), has put on indefinite hold his wedding to Neil’s sister Thea (Nima Slone), and is now living with his poker-playing uncle Charlie (Randall Zielinksi), who runs his home as a halfway house for restless, perplexed souls. He is also taking over the late-night talkback radio show Fallen Territory (for “angry insomniacs” and other marginalised folk) while its previous DJ Dean Van Puddy (Kris Calatagirone) goes travelling in the Middle East in search of ‘solace’. Dean is not alone in this quest, even if his fellow travellers are each following their own path. Like David Hemmings’ Thomas in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), Eddie obsessively revisits and photographs the park where the homicide took place as he struggles to find his way through deep mourning for Neil, and beyond that for his own late mother. And it will turn out that the previous guest at Uncle Charlie’s, a down-and-out, disconsolate drifter named Carmine Clithero (Raul Delarosa), is also dealing with boundless grief and guilt, encapsulated by a talisman (of a pregnant woman) that he variously carries and loses which comes with an associative import not unlike the snowglobe in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941).
When Eddie first meets Carmine, he mocks him for his aggressive reticence. Yet Eddie, too, comes across as surprisingly taciturn for someone whose business is words (although his old radio show in New York was significantly titled Talk Is Cheap). Here noir’s clipped economy of language has become a signifier of pathology and of alienation. As Eddie gets it into his head that Carmine not only has something to hide, but may also be closely connected to Neil’s death, he starts tailing him like a potboiler gumshoe – yet this pursuit also reveals just how much hunter and prey have in common. Both suffer from sleep disorders, both have become disaffected with the ‘carnivorous economy’ all around, both are (as Uncle Charlie puts it) “in a deep, dark place most of the time”, both have taken to digging (for resolution) in strange places. Deep down, Eddie wants to be Carmine. He turns his back on society’s conventional values of employment, family and human company, and races towards homelessness – even as, ironically, Carmine is trying to pull himself away from it.
Eddie’s fragmentation is documented in the letters (an “outdated mode of communication”) that he writes to his sister Faye (Alanna Blair) – presented in voiceover as another nod to noir – although we are never sure if these letters are any more real than the ones that he claims to have received from Neil before he died, but which have now mysteriously gone missing. Indeed, much of Eddie’s experience is imbued with an oneiric quality, as his waking and sleeping life blur in a somnambulant haze. All these phantom phone calls, lost missives and ghostly conversations suggest a man trying and failing to reach out. Likewise his misconstruing of sexual cues from the women that he encounters (Catherine Lerza, Tiziana Perinotti) as grief counselling shows a man out of sync with his surroundings, and unable to engage in basic human intercourse or crawl from the hole of his own fixations and emotional stagnation.
The inordinate length of Overwhelm The Sky is part and parcel of its effect to induce in the viewer something akin to a hypnotic state, as we, like Eddie, meander through and between often surreal scenarios whose reality is ever open to question. Eddie’s pursuit – of Carmine, of conspiracy, of meaning and truth itself – may in the end be a wild goose chase, leading in a circle to the desert with which the film opened; but it is also a ritualistic journey to contested land (or ‘fallen territory’) where help can be sought, the past can be buried and solace can, perhaps, be found. And if Brown’s source novel devalued the lives of Native Americans, this adaptation certainly redresses the balance.
This is a strange, beautiful trip, ambiguously mapped and exquisitely framed, in which genre is used to explore broader issues all at once psychological, sociological and semiological – with an underlying existential edge. There is cloak and dagger here, to be sure, as part of the generic makeup – but the philosophical and emotional truths being expressed through all this fictive filmic architecture may catch you unawares. Eddie and Carmine are little boys lost, stuck in a limbo of their own sorrow – and the only way they can find themselves again and be healed is to travel back to a place of dreams, on the periphery of American history, between deep river and sky, where the slate can be cleaned and the deck (of despair) reshuffled. Along the way, the viewer is invited to be disoriented and enthralled by the sheer technical prowess on display here, as an old filmmaking language is used to play a new game.
© Anton Bitel