Near the beginning of Laotian-American director Mattie Do’s third feature film (released on VOD in North America on March 1), there is a scene wherein a woman watches the film’s protagonist The Old Man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) prepare her body for burial. Her face wears a forlorn expression: confusion reined in by helplessness. She holds her hands but doesn’t speak — she just watches herself as The Old Man dusts her cheeks with blush, gently wipes a pale brown hue across her lips, and then slices off her index finger. As he buries her in a clearing nestled deep within a thick forest, we see that her yellow-wildflower-topped grave will be surrounded by others: dappled across the clearing’s floor are sprouts of other yellow-flower grave toppers like so much shattered sunlight. “You’ll be safe here,” The Old Man tells the woman.
Safe from whom, one wonders. The Old Man, surrounded by the ghosts of the other women who lie in the clearing’s graves, says that he put the woman — all the women —out of their misery, and it certainly seems that way until later on in the film, when the cohort of ghost women look at him through accusatory, acidic gazes. He keeps their fingers as tokens, it seems. The Long Walk is about such appearances — the way things seem — which Do uses to craft a masterfully wound tale that grips with simultaneous mercy and mercilessness.
The plot, written by Christopher Larsen, is like various lives lived. It centers around The Old Man living in a near-future Laos, where ambiguous low-flying jets break the sonic barrier right above people’s heads and where their forearms are embedded with microchips (meant not only to track them but also facilitate purchases and the transfer of large or small sums of money). The Old Man is a scavenger, making a living out of selling what he can find in the village around him. The film’s first few frames depict him stripping 50-year-old growth off of a bike in the woods near the skeletal remains of a girl — The Girl (Noutnapha Soydara) — whose ghost has stayed with him since he was a child. The bike belonged to her; she was run off the road and crashed and died. The Old Man watched The Girl die when he was The Boy, and because he left her body to decay in the woods, The Girl is doomed to a lifetime beside The Old Man. He has the gift of seeing the specters of people whose bodies haven’t been cremated — people who haven’t been shown the way to the afterlife through the appropriate ceremonies.
The Old Man discovers that The Girl can step through time, and he begins using her to travel back to his childhood, to the point right before his father leaves him and his mother dies of a painful tuberculosis-like cough. In the present, Lina (Vilouna Phetmany), the daughter of the woman The Old Man is burying at the film’s opening, arrives from Vientiane. The police don’t know that The Old Man has killed the woman — they just think she’s missing. Lina arrives in the village to await the discovery of her mother’s body; the villagers tell her that The Old Man sees and talks with ghosts, so she goes to him for answers and explanations.
The Old Man is in possession of a tea made of wildflowers that lulls people into a sleepy death. This tea is what he’s been using to mercy-kill the women he sees around him who he thinks are suffering, and it’s the tea he wants to use on his mother in the past so that she might die painlessly. The film trails behind Lina and The Boy (Por Silatsa), The Old Man’s younger self, as they reckon with the actions of The Old Man throughout time. When The Old Man meddles with the past, the Boy’s fate changes course like a river diverted, and Lina at once and in turn searches for her mother and fights for her life.
You’ll need to watch The Long Walk twice before you realize it’s about self-erasure, thrice before you realize it’s about life more than it is about death, and perhaps once more before you realize that its meaning can hardly be tacked to a singular idea. A meditation on subtlety and an exercise in using seemings – riding on things, people, and events as they seem – The Long Walk conveys a wealth of meaning, like a tree branching out of a singular bed of fertile soil. In other words, what this film means to us will be dependent on how we feel each time we watch it; the parts that stick will be what’s top of mind for us. Sure, it can be argued that every film is like this, but here, Do leverages this dialectic of interpretation — which is conveyed through plot and cinematography — to give massive heft to her thesis that life is a fragile thing whose course ebbs and flows based on our minutest actions. The multiplicity of meanings is the meaning itself of this film, and because this is the meaning of life itself, the film, in a curious, circuitous, contradictory way, is about everything there ever was and will be. There’s something about this movie that sucks you in entirely and that feels like a life lived once the credits roll.
Unruly philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche posed a thought experiment in his works — a curious little thing he dubbed “the greatest weight”:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence — even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Nietzsche asks: would you be elated by this proposal — at the prospect of having to live your life as you have lived it, again and again? Or would you absolutely abhor the idea? This experiment is meant to serve as a moral code of sorts: one ought to look at one’s actions, the choices available, and choose that which ultimately one would be happy living through again and again, consequences and all. “The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight,” Nietzsche says. One ought to want to crave the re-treading of one’s life as it was laid. This is a code of conduct philosophers have been grappling with for years and one whose crux is beautifully illustrated in The Long Walk because it’s a good moral compass for people who have nothing left — who’ve lost everything, including hope.
The weight of The Old Man’s past bears heavily on his heart; watching his mother suffer and drown in the blood in her lungs is what motivates him to expunge women in whom he sees the slightest bit of suffering, such as Lina’s mother. He is alone, conversing with the dead, going over his past, trying to figure out what went wrong and where to lead him to the state he is in now. He is no longer able to focus on himself and is constantly trying to fix his own past either by traveling backward or by ending the suffering of women around him.
Do conveys The Old Man’s suffering poignantly through The Boy’s experiences, but she also shows us his hubris through the apprehensiveness of The Girl’s ghost, who is stuck to The Old Man. The Old Man continually re-writes his past to achieve an outcome that satisfies his present self but cannot seem to attain anything that adds up to a happy ending for his mother, his younger self, and his older self. Do has The Old Man travel back into his past numerous times, but nothing seems to keep his mother’s and his own suffering at bay; rather, his actions seem to subtly change his present until he finds that, instead of being the benevolent ender of suffering in women he sees himself to be, he has crossed the delicate moral line circumscribing his actions and passed onto the opposite side: he has become a serial killer.
Do doesn’t impose a singular meaning upon audiences; she doesn’t pass judgment on any iteration of The Old Man. Rather, she shows us a multiplicity of lives commingling and intersecting and bifurcating and ending, all attached to The Old Man. There is humanness in every motivation: The Boy’s as he stands confounded before himself as The Old Man, and Lina’s as she begs The Old Man to help her connect with her mother. Nor does Do over-explain anything of her and Larsen’s plot. Rather, she crafts various well-lived lives, follows them as they unfold, and watches how easy it is for them to be stunted.
The Old Man seems to have the best intentions but something as simple as telling The Boy to give his mother some money he found in The Girl’s belongings leads to a cracked pane of glass, one that ends up with his father abandoning his family earlier than he did in another past, which seems to be what leads to The Old Man becoming a serial killer. But wasn’t The Old Man always a serial killer, even as he mercifully put numerous suffering women to sleep? In one early scene, a cop tells Lina that there might be something more to her mother’s death since numerous other women in the village — all The Old Man’s mercy kills — have also disappeared. Lina doesn’t make much of it and nor do we, as the audience. We see The Old Man’s actions and think he’s doing these women a service. But if The Old Man is a good man, then why is he so intent on changing his past with The Girl? He wants to carry his present knowledge into his past for his mother, but doesn’t he know that he has the strength to irrevocably change his own life? He seems to lack the knowledge that his actions carry immense power, as is evidenced by how easily he is able to put women to sleep and his genuine lack of care for Lina’s desire to speak with her mother. He seems to refuse the understanding that these women he kills had lives as he does, have people who care about them — people who could assuage their suffering in other ways.
So much of the film’s power lies in subtleties and the enormous questions they spark. Do’s lens follows The Boy as he reckons with his future self’s actions and The Old Man as he scavenges through the reality he makes and unmakes for himself. The dialogue is sparse and poetic, with Do truly relying on the movement of her actors, appearances, and a muted kind of fear withheld at how raw and delicate reality is.
The cinematography (by Matthew Macar) is likewise faint. Images rely heavily on nature and its transitoriness and thereby underscore Do’s message: that life itself is a delicate little thing often escaping our control and what we make of it in the same way that vines grow over The Girl’s bike at the film’s start. Even the control we exercise over the burials of those we love can be frustrated, with our ghosts lingering, stuck in a world they should have left.
The performances in this film are pitch-perfect: the young Silatsa is to die for, a child alone but not precocious — one who wants, most of all, for his mother to be okay and to take care of him so he won’t be alone. Chanthalungsy is stately and beguiling as he blows smoke out of his nostrils, having grown into the loneliness that Silatsa’s The Boy is so afraid of. He contains a kind of inured viciousness that adds a lived-in-ness to his loneliness. It seems to say that he will make others as solitary and staid as he is but he is unaware of the fact that his collecting of ghosts and his reliance on The Girl are all symptomatic of a fear of being alone. The house that The Old Man and The Boy live in seems to be a character unto itself: a fitting analog to the loneliness of the protagonists, it stands tall on a remote swath of land, desultorily covered in nature and desultory in its ability to sustain the people who enter it. Some people die in it and never leave, while others are lucky to survive it, much in the way that some survive The Old Man in certain timelines, while others don’t.
The Long Walk is a beautiful film that’s stunningly shot and expertly edited (by Zohar Michel): though it’s a subtle horror, it’s paced like a thriller, playing on those quiet, burrowing fears around mortality we didn’t know we had. So much of The Long Walk is quiet vignettes of pain — in The Boy’s face, in Lina or The Old Man’s life — and a striving to make the pain stop. So much of The Long Walk is about how to live a life well, how to die well; so much of it is about everything, as the disparateness of this review might show.
The staid takeaway is that Mattie Do is a filmmaking force to be reckoned with.