The Oregonian (2011)

Once again I have decided to watch some obscure film no one talks about that is a decade old, except this time it's actually good!

I've known about The Oregonian for awhile now, having seen it once on some streaming service I think back when I still had access to those. It's a bit ironic that I watched something like this after just complaining about how I was hoping for Bottom of the World to be an exploration of the desolate landscape of the western United States, and then afterwards I finally get around to watching this movie which does exactly that (and more). As the title suggests, the Oregon setting plays a big role in it, or at least that's partly how I choose to read the film. It's almost comical how thin the plot apparently is for this. Wherever the metadata was pulled from for my setup for watching movies (Kodi and Jellyfin), all it has to say about the plot is basically that a woman gets in a car crash and sees some weird stuff. Initially I was expecting this to be something like The Boat, where a lot of the point of the movie is an exercise in making a movie out of a really simple premise. This ended up being more than that, although what exactly it ended up being is… a bit difficult to explain.

Many people seem to take issue with this movie for being an impenetrable surreal nightmare that is supposedly a "horror" film, but I have absolutely no problem with something being really surreal and experimental. In fact, you might even say I'm a fan of that kind of thing. It's important to note that this is not a "horror film", though, anymore than David Lynch makes horror films. There are horrific elements in his films, but they also incorporate lots of other things like film noir. Another thing that features prominently in David Lynch films is the Pacific Northwest, with Lynch himself being a native of the region (Montana specifically). Something about the PNW seems to capture the imagination in a very specific way, because this reminded me of a third surreal nightmare work called The Orange Eats Creeps which came out a year before this movie.1

The beginning of this film had me thinking about the times I've driven through Oregon. I'm fond of aimlessly driving around, and in the past few years have had a lot of time on my hands to do so, and whenever I've driven through some of the more remote parts of Oregon it's always in the back of my mind a bit that my car could break down and I would be stuck in the middle of nowhere, either deep in the woods or in the desert (which is what most of east Oregon is). In some ways this movie is a bit of an inversion of a road movie, a uniquely American phenomenon that is involved with the same sort of fascination I have with driving around aimlessly. This country, as I wrote about previously, is big and (quite literally) hauntingly empty. It tends to feel like a kind of playground for Americans to hurtle into the night with big, loud, stupid machines filled with explosive gasoline, but nowhere is that more true than in the deserts, in the west and southwest where deserted highways stretch out into the distance in a straight line. We have such a fascination with this idea of being able to quickly traverse these desolate territories that there are even video games like Desert Bus and The Long Drive that are literally just about driving forever in the desert.

But the Pacific Northwest is different. There's not as much flat, empty space to speed down, and what there is mostly is through the western parts of Oregon and Washington that are more densely populated. Driving through a desert is a visual experience of compressing a vast amount of mostly empty space into a smeared, impressionistic image of the scenery speeding by, but you can't do that driving through the forests in Oregon and Washington unless you're a crazy person who likes driving fast through winding mountain roads at night. Now, I'm the kind of person who does that sometimes, but as I said before whenever I drive aimlessly through the PNW I always have it in the back of my mind that if I get into an accident or my car breaks down I'm not just in the middle of nowhere but also am in a place where you can't easily get your bearings and figure out where you are. In a desert, you can mostly get a sense of what your surroundings are, but in a forest you could be right next to a road and never even know it unless you hear cars driving by. You could be being watched by something a few hundred yards away and never know it. Being lost in a forest has a lot more to do with using sound rather than sight to figure out if a road is nearby, or a river, or if you can hear birds chirping.

My point is that something I noticed and was thinking about a lot throughout this movie, especially the beginning, is how it utilizes sound quite a bit. The first scene in the main character's home has an acoustic track playing very clearly. The next scene, when the crash happens, Jimi Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner is playing on the radio. At least, I think that's what's playing. Either way, it's coming through on the radio while the main character comes to and leaves her car to find help. You can make out what's playing on the radio, but it's very distorted from both radio static and also because the song just is supposed to sound that way. As she walks further, she starts getting blinded by the sun, which is making loud pulsing sounds that then turn into a deafening static. No melody at all, just pure noise. She turns back and seemingly walks in the other direction.

The rest of the movie has lots of different instances of sound being utilized in either the form of extremely lo-fi music or deafening static, screaming, and laughing, but I think the scene I just described lays the groundwork out for how the setting figures into the movie. When you're lost in the forest and your car has broken down, you can't trust your eyes anymore because you probably won't be able to see very far in front of you. The main character learns this as she wanders further and further into the woods and encounters an old woman in red walking along a backroad who just stares at her and smiles. This character, and others like her, show up at various other points in the film, and while I hate to constantly compare anything surrealist to David Lynch, creepy fucked up old people staring at the camera with rictus grins is an image that is permanently associated with Lynch for me because of the incredible and terrifying end sequence of Mulholland Drive.

Speaking of creepy weirdos, another thing that I appreciated about this movie related to its setting is that there isn't a single character in the movie who is normal or feels like they aren't someone you could very likely actually encounter in Oregon. Everyone is kind of weird looking, some also kind of gross or frumpy, but they all also mostly look like people you could in fact encounter, as opposed to say the Man from Another Place in Twin Peaks. It's possible but unlikely to encounter a dwarf by happenstance while walking down to the nearest Plaid Pantry in Portland at 2am, but if I talked to cis people or guys in general in real life I could probably say that I know several people who remind me of characters in this movie. If this is intentional then it's a good use of casting because it makes the world of The Oregonian feel like a believable, albeit twisted and nightmarish, version of Oregon.

Going back to the idea of an inverted road movie, the main character ends up wandering out of the forest and into the desert part of Oregon, where she is then wandering around through exactly the kind of shitty nondescript non-place sort of small town that I talked about in my Bottom of the World review. I wouldn't be surprised if I've driven through where they filmed this segment of the movie, because I've definitely been through some towns in eastern Oregon where it really felt like no one lived in them and if anyone did I would wonder how or why. The writer/director of the movie apparently felt the same way since in this part of the movie, the town is literally and inexplicably deserted until she gets picked up by a guy driving a van who doesn't speak and then stops at one point to take a piss, where he then starts pissing blood and then some kind of black substance, and then falls over seemingly dead before getting back up again. I think at this point you'll know whether or not it's the kind of movie for you and I was along for the fucking ride.

I'm not going to go sequence by sequence through the movie and try to dissect all of it but some other things I appreciated about it are how it not only layers different noise textures throughout, but also will edit together different scenes that go by so quickly you barely have time to figure out what's going on. A lot of the time in the movie, you either get extremely bizarre visuals (the green room being my favorite) that are hard to make sense of but that also have a certain texture to them, or you get a series of impressions of things that maybe make more sense but you'd need to go frame by frame to tell what's going on. To me it all gives the sense of what it's like to be in a deteriorated mental state from something like being hit on the head during a car crash, or when you have a half-remembered memory that you are trying to ignore or repress, where a series of images will flash in your mind that will make sense but that you won't want to dwell on or you'll start going off on weird fixated tangents with specific things.

With what the plot of the movie ends up being, this to me feels like one potential read of the narrative of the movie, if that's something you care about. People complain about movies like this where it's not clear what actually happened at the end of it, and there's a part of me that feels that too, but I also am happy to be lead along through a series of bizarre visuals where I know that they have meaning to someone (the writer/director or maybe the main character in the film) but whatever it means can't be communicated with words. If you try to reduce the visuals in a movie like this down to abstractions in language, you've already lost something, much like with poetry. This is the case with all of language, but we usually don't think about it because in everyday speech the conspiracy of language has already embedded itself and it quite literally can't be conceptualized any other way. But when the point of a work is to explore the things that can't be reduced to conventional language, it can feel like a betrayal because we're used to having something communicated to us that makes sense within that conspiracy of language.

Anyways, recommended of course but this movie really does not deserve to be reduced to just being a horror movie. I think most people who like horror as a genre more than the abstract concept of horrific elements in works of art would probably not be into this, because it doesn't have much of anything resembling what you'd expect out of "horror movie". But as a surreal nightmare trip through the unconscious of a woman who is fleeing from an abusive boyfriend/husband and gets into an accident and probably suffers some kind of head trauma on top of the PTSD trauma, it's pretty neat!

Footnotes:

1

Brief aside: The Orange Eats Creeps is also quite good but also a bit impenetrable and bizarre. If you like the idea of homeless vampire junkie degenerates wandering around a nightmare dreamscape version of the Pacific Northwest, I recommend checking it out. I read it for the first time in 2021 during a period where I was living on someone's couch several hours away from most of my possessions which were in storage and had no idea where I would be living a month from then, but I originally stole my copy of the book in 2013.

Created: 2023-07-24 Mon 07:17

Last updated: 2024-03-05 Tue 22:36