It’s not much of a revelation to suggest that Sundance has gradually moved away from its independent roots and transformed into something more akin to a Hollywood talent incubator. It’s a charge that has dogged the festival for years; as critic A.A. Dowd has elsewhere noted, you’d have to go back to the ‘80s to find a version of the fest free of Hollywood’s presence and influence. While an avalanche of quirky dramedies followed in the wake of the one-two punch of Little Miss Sunshine & Juno’s massive box office success, actual indie filmmakers like Bradley Rust Gray have struggled to make more challenging fare on their own terms (it seems appropriate to note that Gray’s breakthrough film The Exploding Girl premiered at Berlin in 2009, not Sundance). Gray’s new film Blood continues his ongoing fascination with women navigating emotionally taxing situations, and it results in a sensitive, delicate film that also happens to have a gaping void at its center — it’s a character study that never finds any character.
Gray begins the film in medias res, as Chloe (Swiss actress Carla Juri) and her friend Toshi (Takashi Ueno) visit his grandmother. Toshi explains that Chloe is a photographer visiting Japan for an assignment, and that she’s been recently widowed. That’s essentially the only narrative thread for the entire film, which is filled with scenes of Chloe observing people at work, photographing them, and playing with Toshi’s young daughter, Futaba (Futaba Okazaki). Gray also inserts brief flashbacks to Chloe and her husband on vacation in Iceland, the cold, snow-swept landscapes standing in sharp contrast to the warm, vernal hues of her time in Japan. Blood rambles amiably along as these patterns repeat, eventually becoming formless vignettes arranged in seemingly random order.
Working with cinematographer Eric Lin, Gray finds all manner of pleasant, picturesque compositions, and there are some standout moments interspersed throughout the tedium; a long boat ride finds Chloe and actor Issey Ogata attempting to bridge their language barrier and have a conversation, and in the process finds the right balance between uninflected naturalism and actual meaningful dialogue. Elsewhere, in the film’s most striking moment, one of the flashbacks has Chloe and her husband visiting an actual active volcano. But too much of the film is content to observe faces without actually revealing anything behind them. And while one certainly wishes to applaud Gray’s refusal to interject needless conflict or quirky comedy into his project, the film is in dire need of an interesting structural hook or some kind of formal daring (curiously, Gray has mentioned in interviews that he had originally wanted Michelle Williams to play Chloe, a bit of meta-textual casting that might have added some subtle gravitas to the proceedings. Instead, Chloe’s grief feels largely academic). Actions tend to play out in long medium shots, presumably to better capture some semblance of unvarnished realism, and there’s the occasional 180-degree pan that traverses a landscape or scans along the horizon line. It all wanders around pleasantly enough, content to hang around these people and simply observe. It’s understood that Gray seems to genuinely love these characters, but it’s just too bad he can’t convince us to do the same.
Published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 3.