Tuesday, April 19, 2022

'Chariot' is, plainly, a mess

It takes deliberate effort to make absurdist art. Chariot is just absurd.

The promotional tagline for the movie Chariot says, in an ominous tone, "Witness the end of an error." But the advertising executives undersold what they were promoting. This movie is all error, from beginning to end.

The story opens with a silent prologue set in 1840. A lonely man who lives in a cabin and has the obvious cinematic symptom of upcoming death sees in the distance a strange building with blinking lights. He goes out on his horse to investigate, but suddenly he's lying on his deathbed, and that's it. This sequence is unrelated to the rest of the movie, which is a pity, because visually it's the best executed part. The opening shot alone boasts a degree of filmmaking expertise that is painfully lacking from everything that follows.

We jump to the present day and meet Harrison, a troubled young man who has just moved to another city to begin a new psychiatric treatment for his sleep disorder. Every day since childhood, he's had the same dream, a boring domestic scene, except that the dream adds a nonexistent attic to his childhood house.

Meanwhile, he starts a romance with the Designated Girlfriend for this Movie, a Manic Pixie Acid Tripper who explains the rules of the apartment building he's moved into. Apparently, everyone there has something weird about them. There's a guy who floats, whose entire deal is that he floats. There's a masked singer cursed with irresistible beauty. There's a guy who works at a nature preserve trying to coax endangered turtles to reproduce. There's a receptionist possessed by an old Brit. None of them has anything to do with the story. They're just there to act weird and say weird stuff. They're there for our protagonist to have something to react to with a stoic nod.

Making a surreal movie requires more artistry than just finding strange things to throw in the viewer's face. As Freud famously discovered about DalĂ­, an effective work of surrealist art does not come from the automatic unconscious; it's a very deliberate, very intentional procedure. It takes a conscious act of thought to communicate the irrational. That's where Chariot fails: its random cast of characters and unfinished worldbuilding do not help convey a concrete state of mind, which is what irrational art needs to evoke in place of making a statement. The closest Chariot gets to having something to say is a disjointed scene where the protagonist complains that human life is too short, but if that's the message of the story, it's spelled out too explicitly, which defeats the point of surrealism, and what it says is not particularly original.

The plot takes too long to treat as a big reveal what the promotional material said upfront: this is a movie about reincarnation. There's some shady organization that supervises the reincarnation process, and our protagonist has broken the system by remembering a past lover. That's all. The movie promptly ends once the system punishes the outlier, but there's an obvious implication that these lovers will meet again in their next lives.

What we get is a confusing not-quite-story that gestures vaguely at questions about the absurdity of the human condition and the search for purpose, but it's more interested in the occasional cheap surprise than in any real engagement with its themes. Chariot doesn't have a point to make, and maybe that's the whole point, but it's a bad sign when your attempt at pointlessness turns out, well, pointless.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 4/10.

Bonuses: +1 for skillful execution of a deadpan style of comedy that filmmakers sometimes appear to have forgotten how to pull off.

Penalties: −1 for clumsy editing, −1 for using only the trappings of surrealism without any meaning under the surface.

Nerd Coefficient: 3/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.