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.
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.
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.