Precarious (2020)

Precarious is a film of tight spots. When we first meet its hero Henry (Andrey Pfening), he is injured, unconscious and handcuffed, in a small bedroom crammed with police officers watching closely over his bed. Thereafter his mysterious escapades will take him from secret crawlspace to locked supply room to phone booth to mobile library to treehouse to tent to mine shaft to sunken room to chimney – all narrow settings which hem him in and impede his ability to take action (not that he ever stops trying). Meanwhile Henry is also a prisoner of his own wounded body as it undergoes a peculiar, painful metamorphosis that increasingly roots him to the ground. All Henry wants is the missing motorbike that he designed and built himself, and the missing key that will enable it (and him) to ride on the open road once more – but instead his mobility is repeatedly kept in check. Yet in this feature debut from writer/director/editor/cinematagrapher Wes Terray, collaborating closely with art designer Louise Franco, the one thing that comes entirely unconstrained is the imaginativeness of both the film’s narrative trajectory and its visual landscape.

Leaving aside a very small number (three, to be exact) of scenes shot in exterior locations, in fact every set that features in Precarious was hand-built, piece by piece, in a single living room – the film’s real, primal ‘tight spot’ – in the director’s home. This yields a stuffy, artificial world, constructed from the bric à brac of a bygone age when record players, walkie-talkies, rotary phones, teleprinters, typewriters and analogue cameras were the furnishings of modernity. In this Fifties-style DIY era, Terray and Franco have crafted a play-box small town the old-fashioned way, without recourse to any CGI or digital effects, and filled it with characters who, though adults, behave like children off on a wild adventure – or perhaps just playing with a model set. 

Henry is the only surviving witness – and also victim – of a crossbow attack that left a truck driver and a policeman dead on the road. Now recovering from his strange arrow wounds at the doctor’s house and keeping his counsel, Henry undergoes a magical interrogation by crystal-wielding ‘specialists’ to determine his innocence, and then is helped by the doctor’s daughter Rachel (Meriel Melendrez Mees) to escape before a trap for him can be sprung by the circling killer. Weak but determined, Henry will team up reluctantly with junior reporter Clark (Dashiell Hillman) and plucky librarian Ruby (Juliana Frick) to find a treasure that everybody – except maybe Henry himself – wants. Along the way there will be psychotic twins, hidden passageways, bloody murder and unconventional crystallography, with the transitions from one scene to the next proving to be deeply irrational, like the wilder leaps of a child’s – or a dreamer’s – imagination.

Henry may share his name with the protagonist of Eraserhead (1977), and may come with the wide-eyed confusion of, and a certain physical resemblance to, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) from Blue Velvet (1986), but to call Precarious ‘Lynchian’ would be to do it something of a disservice. For what Terray’s film shares with the works of Lynch, of Walerian Borowczyk, of Guy Maddin, and of the brothers Quay – apart from a generalised embrace of the oneiric and the obscure, and a certain fetishisation of material objects – is a high degree of originality that makes it difficult to compare to anything else. This tale of the addictions that tie us down and hold us back, and of the independence for which we can always instead strive (however Sisyphean the effort), reflects the very values of a filmmaking mode which is ever striving to break free of its own constraints, and of the weight of tradition. Although Precarious drips with nostalgia, and draws on the legacy of film noir, melodrama and old-world intrigue (an effect certainly helped by Ben Eshbach’s luscious orchestral score), it also squeezes into hermetic spaces between the cracks of everyday, waking experience, and follows a tight, twisted trail via its own dream logic. 

Weird, haunting and very beautiful, Precarious offers up a doll’s house of unusual exploits and ingenious escapes, all unfolding on a narrow but accommodating scale. Terray and Franco prove adept at creating a universe from next to nothing, and a story in which seemingly anything can happen. While the title Precarious – a word that recurs in the film’s dialogue – alludes to delicacy and danger, this true gem of a movie is rock solid, building the firm foundations for a sublimely singular filmmaking future that is wide open. 

strap: Wes Terray’s lovingly handcrafted gem of an oddity keeps placing its protagonist in the tight spots between a rock and a hard place

© Anton Bitel