By its very nature, an apocalypse is an event on a large scale, taking out most if not all of the world’s population, and changing forever the lives of those left behind. Accordingly, films about the apocalypse are often spectacular disaster movies – think Roland Emmerich’s widescreen vistas of chaotic calamity in The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and 2012 (2009) – while films set in a post-apocalyptic environment are often action epics unfolding in extremis (like the various Planet of the Apes franchises or the Mad Max sequels).
It need not be this way. For an apocalypse can also be an intimate affair, shown from a singular perspective, with the sort of small, isolated cast that is perfectly suited to a more modest indie budget – as in Christoph Behl’s The Desert (2013), Stephen Fingleton’s The Survivalist (2015) or Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes At Night (2017), all of which confine their window on the end of days to a single location and a limited set of characters. There is, however, a third category of apocalyptic cinema, where so closely are the end times made to match the emotional turmoil of a character that the apocalypse becomes less a reality than an expression of entirely interior states. This was (arguably) the case with Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), with A.T. White’s Starfish (2018) – and now with Go/Don’t Go.
This feature debut from writer/director Alex Knapp concerns Adam (played by Knapp), a deeply introverted apanthrope. We first see him eating a meal alone in front of a television (“I really believe that I heard voices,” a man can be heard saying in the movie that Adam is barely watching), before a fractured flashback shows him again sitting alone, looking very out of place and uncomfortable in a crowded bar where he is ostensibly celebrating his birthday. Still, at least Adam has chosen to attend the party, and even agrees to meet the stranger K (Olivia Luccardi). Such forwardness from him is uncharacteristic. “Usually I have to peel you off the wall,” his best, perhaps only friend Kyle (Nore Davis) tells him (twice), “This is great, making progress.” Normally Adam just would not go, but today he has, leading to an awkward meet-cute with the woman destined, however briefly, to become the love of his life. As he discusses with K his habit of having conversations in his head, and the question of what, or whom, he would bring to a desert island, we can see Adam starting to come out of his insulated shell – but then, as Adam is about to drive home with K, she vanishes, leaving him alone in the street – and with that, this flashback, already fragmented by juddery edits, reveals itself to be an abstract piecing together of remembered hope and loss, all unfolding in Adam’s head.
We never find out the precise nature of the apocalyptic event in Go/Don’t Go that intervenes between this impressionistic past and Adam’s present – but now Adam is truly alone, seemingly the only person left in his New York State town – where the lights are still on, but nobody’s home. Here he plays baseball before the audible, yet imagined cheering of a crowd, sends letters and leaves phone messages for himself, puts out food every morning for a dog that is never seen, sets boobytraps for non-existent intruders, and otherwise carries on his solipsistic routines, in a place where the rest of the populace is mysteriously absent (apart from the odd ghostly visitation) but – even more mysteriously under the circumstances – the water and electricity continue to run, and radio and television continue to broadcast.
Every day Adam ventures outside. He retreads his old stamping grounds and, in these nostalgic trips down memory lane, flashes back to his previous entanglement with K, which went so far as meeting the parents (Thomas Essig, Bettina Skye) and planning to move in together. Yet now that the relationship is behind him and K is long gone, the range of Adam’s journeys through this ghost town is narrowing. In each house that he visits, the lights are gradually failing, leading him ritualistically to bury the spent bulbs. He uses green and red paint, both on a map and in real locations, to divide up the landscape into go and no-go areas, reflecting the way that his anxieties are slowly shutting him off and in, leaving him with less and less room to move.
Like the hero of Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow’s The Last Man On Earth (1964) or Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend (2007) – both drawn from the same novel by Richard Matheson – Adam cuts an isolated figure in a desolate environment, doing his rounds to keep a grip on his own humanity even as everything bit by bit falls apart. Yet there is the sense, from the start, that Adam’s life has not really changed, that he has always been a loner and a shut-in, and that this vacated community is a place of the imagination as much as reality, where he can stage his anguished feelings over having been abandoned by K. And so, in its way, this is a breakup (and recovery) movie, merely told in apocalyptic idioms, as one man faces not so much societal collapse as his own mental meltdown.
“Can we get stuck in nostalgia? Can it be harmful to us?”, asks a voice on the radio in the workshop where Adam tries to fix a car that might be able to take him out of town. Though named for the Biblical first man, Adam now sees himself as the last – whereas the truth is that, like all of us, he is somewhere in the middle, muddling through his own internalised universe of issues and angst. He is someone who used to go but now has stopped – an arrested, terrified protagonist who must learn in time to move on and reenter once again a world that involves other people, leaving behind his own self-imposed desert island. Meanwhile, he is like a ghost in his own narrative, retracing all his old haunts and clinging to the same painful recollections that he simultaneously seeks to escape, while himself barely even existing in the present.
As such, Go/Don’t Go is a film not unlike Cory Santilli’s Saul At Night (2019), where the barest elements of genre are there to show (in a revelation, or apocalypse) an individual’s irrational stasis and panicky retreat inwards. A careful collection of songs on the film’s soundtrack sets just the right tone of melancholy, perfectly modulating Adam’s inner states – which are of course the psychogeography that the whole film is charting. Adam may, in his locked-in solitude, be desperate – may even be destroying, street by street, house by house, all the memories that he most cherishes – but in the end, even in the icy bleakness of winter, there is still room for Hope.
strap: Alex Knapp’s feature debut presents a lonely introverted man’s feelings of loss as an intimate, abstract apocalypse
© Anton Bitel