Willem Dafoe is one of those wonderful ‘up for anything’ actors that never seems to have a shortage of strange projects floating his way. This fact makes it no surprise he’d be on director Abel Ferrara’s wish list for Siberia, a fantasy drama that marks the pair’s sixth collaboration, proves Ferrara is still somewhat of a provocateur, and is one of the most singular movies to come out of 2020.
Siberia opens with a monologue by its protagonist, Clint (Dafoe). He speaks over the beginning credits, telling us about his childhood, and in particular, his alcoholic father. We hear of fishing boats, wild dogs, and the fears of a young boy. In the present, Clint works at a mountainside bar, often serving drinks to patrons he doesn’t speak the same language as, using their reactions and tone as indicators of what spirit they’d like poured into their rustic glasses. The setting is brutal but beautiful: freezing snowy woods, stunning vistas, and amazingly blue landscapes.
There’s very little dialogue in the first third of Siberia, so it comes as somewhat of a shock when one of the bar’s visitors opens their coat revealing a naked pregnant belly underneath. As it turns out, Clint is going to be a father. Problem is, he’s haunted by frightening visions of an unknown origin and his strained memory of his father. This is where Siberia gets interesting, and also loses its cohesion: Clint, very suddenly, is traveling to the bottom of a cave where he’s met by an orange circular glow rising above the water on the ground. It expands as if it were a burning star drawing closer, or perhaps the sun rising above the sea early in the morning. Except what awaits beyond this entrance is a lot less comfortable than a day by the seaside. In order to confront his visions and their origin, Clint must travel into the depths of his soul, and this cave is the start.
Here, he explores dreams, memories, nightmares, or perhaps a mix of all three; it’s hard to tell. In fact, it’s hard to decipher much of what happens in this story. The simple and patient direction of the opening twenty-something minutes is replaced by energy comparable to some of David Lynch’s wilder moments, or even Terrence Malick at his most obscure. Graphic images — mostly featuring nudity — make Siberia‘s descent into Clint’s psyche uncomfortable and unsettling. There’s even the odd jump-scare that springs out of nowhere, making Ferrara’s latest surprisingly terrifying during some particularly weird stretches. This is effective in the creation of a disturbing atmosphere, but also rather cheap in how naked bodies and seemingly random spouts of gore are used to keep audience members on their toes.
In the beginning of Clint’s foray into his mind, he sees his father. He looks like he was ripped right from a young boy’s idea of what a troubled father should look like: shaving cream obscuring his face, wearing a slightly grimy-looking vest, and an inanimate but somehow evil bottle by his side. Sights such as this hint at a deft, piercing quality Siberia never commits to.
This is an ambitious spiritual narrative but is often clumsy or — at the opposite end of the scale — too clinical to get emotionally involved with. Ferrara goes to such extremes with being heady and strange that the intricacies of his and Christ Zois’s screenplay are lost in translation. While films like Mulholland Drive and Enemy are anchored somewhere that allows their realities to bend while still being engaging, Siberia is bound to lose stragglers along the path to its disjointed and muddied self-actualization.
Clint is too busy traversing through his darkness to give us any reason to care about the outcome, and although a subtle score and striking cinematography help keep eyes on the screen, there’s little substance that effectively allows communication between movie and moviegoer. In Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, we witness a serial killer’s journey through Hell that’s not that unlike the trip Clint takes: there’s a spiritual guide of some sort, a reckoning with the past, and the idea of mortality. But in that movie, I knew the character, what he deserved, and why it was happening to him. The problem isn’t that Siberia is ‘confusing’ or asks a lot of us, it’s that it’s confusing and asks a lot of us without doing enough to justify those things. If anything, we need more films that challenge us and inspire casual movie fans to fall in love with cinema, but this perhaps isn’t the one to make our case with.
There’s a lot that’s of interest here, especially for those of us who enjoy non-traditional storytelling, but despite a fantastic performance from Dafoe, Siberia slowly but surely becomes a knot that fails to provide an incentive for us to untangle it.