Locarno 2022 review: A Perfect Day for Caribou (Jeff Rutherford)

A Perfect Day for Caribou is a beautiful and poetic film that may start as a charming slice-of-life realist drama, but steadily becomes a more complex character study.”

It is often true that the most effective works of art are those that are most simple – and this is the perfect way to begin a discussion of A Perfect Day for Caribou, the feature-length directorial debut of Jeff Rutherford, who immediately establishes himself as not only an exciting new talent but also an essential young voice in contemporary cinema. The film is a sparse but beautifully poetic drama focused on a hopeless wanderer coming into contact with his estranged son (as well as the young grandson of whose existence he only recently learned), and their efforts to forge a relationship from almost nothing as a result of several years of separation. A Perfect Day for Caribou is a film about physical and emotional migration, looking at a pair of characters that have lives that are perpetually in motion, searching frantically for some clues towards the future as well as answers to the questions that have plagued them for years. Whether it is a matter of seeking closure or simply finding some direction forward, Rutherford’s fascinating character study is a vibrant collection of ideas, condensed into a simple but compelling story of a father and son attempting to form a relationship, and realizing that there is more common ground between them than they expected at the outset.

As is often the case with films such as this, A Perfect Day for Caribou is far from a conventional film despite being heavily indebted to generations of carefully maintained traditions, which the director is carefully subverting throughout the film. Rutherford has composed an unconventionally moving dose of poignant Americana, one that reminds us of many of the iconoclastic independent filmmakers that preceded him and likely inspired his work in terms of both form and content. The governing principle here is mainly that of the virtue of slow cinema – many scenes in this film last slightly longer than they would in a more orthodox version of this story, but rather than making the film laborious, the approach allows us to luxuriate in every intimate moment, which is so beautifully captured by director of photography Alfonso Herrera Salcedo who works closely with Rutherford to bring his serious but fascinating ideas to life. A Perfect Day for Caribou has distinctive shades of Kelly Reichardt’s work (although some of the bleak imagery reminds one of Béla Tarr, especially in how the film negotiates the relationship between the working-class man and his often-hostile surroundings, much of it in the natural world), with the bare-boned aesthetic and carefully paced storytelling being reminiscent of some of the most iconic works of independent cinema of previous decades. It allows Rutherford the space to explore the major themes, and in the process create a raw and insightful character study that possesses a unique energy that supplements the static but effective simplicity of the film.

There are several fascinating ideas that Rutherford spends time exploring but they all ultimately converge along a very simple theme, which configures A Perfect Day for Caribou into a profound meditation on what it means to be a man, whether it be reflecting on the past, acknowledging the present, or anticipating the future. The film touches on themes that all relate to this central concept, looking at characters that question the details of a father-son relationship or the experience of sharing your life with someone romantically, or simply being an active member of society, something at which neither of the protagonists seems to be particularly adept. More than anything else, the theme of fatherhood is most prominent, with the imagery that highlights the intergenerational conflict being the one that lingers the most and which Rutherford is most intent to unpack throughout the film. The narrative is challenging in how it questions masculinity and the spectre of the past that often lingers over such conversations and usually defines it, but in a way that does not aim to preach to the audience, choosing instead to find complex but accessible ways to invite the viewer to glean our own understanding from these more ambiguous themes, creating individual interpretations that all ultimately orbit back to a very simple narrative.

A Perfect Day for Caribou is an extraordinary achievement, a simple but provocative story of three generations coming together to work through their differences, aiming to find common ground where outside observers may not have expected it to exist, but which emerges at the most inopportune moments, usually in situations of crisis. The film is a tender but challenging work that aims to provoke thought above anything else – it is very likely that every viewer will find something in this film that resonates with them, whether it be the striking portrayal of masculinity represented by these characters (who are brought to life by the extraordinary duo of Charlie Plummer and Jeb Berrier, both exceptionally gifted actors who define these characters as much more than one-dimensional archetypes), or the deeper themes that are not directly investigated, but rather exist on the periphery. A Perfect Day for Caribou is a beautiful and poetic film that may start as a charming slice-of-life realist drama, but steadily becomes a more complex character study, one that is positively simmering with the kind of quiet intensity that we are finding increasingly rare as independent films start to deviate from their groundbreaking roots. Rutherford makes a solid case for himself as a director to watch, since while his first feature-length film may be quite simple, there is an abundance of potential that is almost impossible to ignore, and which firmly establishes this film as a work of true artistic integrity and deep social consciousness, the pair working beautifully in tandem.

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