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Empire Builder

About.com Rating 3 Star Rating


Empire Builder

Kate Lyn Sheil in a scene from 'Empire Builder'

Sarasota Film Festival
Despite my life's mission to always be open minded (yes, send me your bandcamp link, 'cause maybe your psychobilly folk song cycle will move me), it is easy to succumb to prejudice. Faced with a micro-budgeted festival film with a label, one is tempted to slump one's shoulders and ask "another one?" When you learn that this one is actually by Joe Swanberg's wife, the romantic in ya might picture monogramed Macs side by side in their cozy editing room, but, let's be frank, the added jolt of nepotism is some salt on the wound.

Then it's important to check your shit. It's not the film's fault its director comes from an absurdly overexposed family. And Empire Builder, like a reasonable amount of projects borne of House Swanberg, is very much worth some attention. It was, indeed, one of the most interesting films I saw at this year's prestigious Sarastota Film Festival.

It stars Kate Lyn Sheil, who steals the show in the Tim Heidecker vehicle The Comedy that I still have been unable to shake since I saw it at Sundance three months ago. She is a new mother living in a Chicago high-rise somewhere between the floors of confused and content. Her husband (played by Joe Swanberg) is a bit of a superdad, breaking the baby's chicken chunks into smaller bits, while Mom rationalizes to friends that she's made all the right decisions in life. After an awkward date night, she takes the baby up to a cabin in the woods where Dad will meet up with them a week later. There's a handyman fixing the roof and just enough furniture to live a rustic kind of life.

The juxtaposition of images is somewhat pointallist - we don't get a full view of the house, but a glance out the window, the corner of a bed. There are long takes as Sheil cooks very yellow food and reads to her baby. In time she begins to interact with the hammering handyman and, well, you don't need to be Jean Dixon to figure out what's gonna happen next.

In a collection of precise and hyperfocused scenes an affair commences, but that's when things start to get a little eerie. The adult nature of the relationship is not once discussed. Then the baby starts to really take a shine to the new father figure. (How they got that baby to giggle on cue repeatedly is something of a mystery.) As the suitor begins to get more and more comfortable in the pretend-family setup, we in the audience do the precise opposite.

There are whiffs of horror conventions in Empire Builder - the somewhat striking dissonant music is certainly a factor - but understatement is the name of the game. For much of the running time it is quite difficult to know what Sheil's character is thinking about the change in the relationship. For a brief moment I thought Empire Builder was veering into strange, unpredictable Certified Copy territory. That this quiet, tiny film could evoke Abbas Kiarastomi is, indeed, high praise.

Much of the applause must go to the film's lead, the soon-to-be ubiquitous Kate Lyn Sheil. At the Sarasota Film Festival she was in no less than four films (as star of the not-so-hot Sun Don't Shine and appearing in small roles in the wonderful V/H/S and fascinating The Unspeakable Act.) She has the goods to be a major motion picture star, and that's exciting in part because she has, for lack of a better term, unconventional good looks.

I hate to even address issues like this, but, let's be honest, if you don't look a certain way it is rare that women get to play the lead role. Kate Lyn Sheil's performance here and elsewhere will enable directors like Kris Swanberg and others to say, essentially, fuck that noise. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and Kate Lyn Sheil looks like a real person - after seeing her star in two movies in a row at Sarasota it was a positive bore to see an actress who had the "usual" look in the next film.

Empire Builder is 72 minutes, and consists of many long, word-free takes. It is designed, on a cellular level, to be of minimal appeal. Yet it is moody and evocative and crept under my skin far more than a lesser film of this type normally does. It indicates that Kris Swanberg is, indeed, a filmmaker worth watching, and I look forward to her next one with no reservations whatsoever.

  1. About.com
  2. Entertainment
  3. World / Independent Film
  4. Independent Film
  5. Spring 2012
  6. Empire Builder - A Review of Kris Swanberg's Empire Builder

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