Credit: Art of the Real / Film at Lincoln Center
by Mark Cutler Featured Film Streaming Scene

The Plains — David Easteal

April 14, 2023

Every weekday, middle-aged legal worker Andrew Rakowski gets in his car and commutes home through suburban Melbourne: and indeed, this constitutes the vast bulk of David Easteals The Plains. Sometimes he calls his wife or mother, sometimes he chats to a coworker, who happens to be the filmmaker. Yet, despite its highly limited setting and subject, the film feels surprisingly expansive, as it slowly delves into the lives and minds of its two central “characters.” In this way, The Plains benefits from a well-chosen subject: Rakowski’s numerous, unusual interests and experiences eke out slowly, between successive rounds of small talk, domestic logistics, and silent, solitary rides. But its format and structure also show real consideration, which make this otherwise daunting, three-hour proposition a surprisingly relaxed and engrossing experience.

Stitched together from a year or so of commutes, The Plains captures the slow, halting emergence of a friendship between Andrew and David; though both, of course, have unique histories, dreams, and regrets, they are hesitant to broach these topics for numerous trips — what must have been weeks or months in real time. In this way, the film captures a pressure felt by many office workers and 9-to-5-ers to suppress or avoid disclosing anything “weird” about ourselves around our colleagues, the strange and alienating feeling that our personal lives are inappropriate to our professional ones. Instead, the two coworkers spend much of their time talking around what’s really on their minds, or simply not talking at all.

Consequently, much of the film’s runtime amounts to a patient study of the darkened office buildings and empty parking lots along this one, anonymous stretch of Melbourne highway. Our only glimpses outside the commute tend to take place miles away, in the wide-open plains alluded to in the film’s title. It’s telling that Easteal, who also works full-time at the law firm, had to make his film both figuratively and literally off the clock. Such constraints are certainly a familiar experience for many: grappling with the sudden relegation of interests and hobbies, the small bits of freedom found between commutes, dirty dishes, and, grudgingly admitted for this writer, a hair routine. Easteal and Rakowski’s exterior lives figure similarly as intersitices or marginal deviations in the structure of the film, like fleeting, thirty-second weekends before the onslaught of the next workweek. 

It’s a little disappointing, at first, that the film covers such a small sliver of Melbourne itself. However, as the film progresses, the limited and repetitive nature of the commute begins to allow viewers to focus more intently on the small details of the two duo’s speech and gestures, and to take notice the passing of the seasons. In the winter, it’s already dusk or dark when they leave. The world feels a little more claustrophobic, and yet new facets of the landscape are revealed through the now-barren tree branches. In the summer, the streets are busier, and — perhaps because they spend more time waiting for crossing pedestrians — Rakowski and Easteal seem chattier too. The pleasure of The Plains, then, is in the remarkable elegance with which it captures these subtle gradations of the domestic, social, and emotional landscapes of “ordinary” life.

Published as part of Art of the Real 2022 — Dispatch 2.