Credit: Jeff Rutherford/Fred Senior Films
Before We Vanish by Chris Cassingham Featured Film

A Perfect Day for Caribou — Jeff Rutherford

April 1, 2024

Death hangs over Jeff Rutherford’s keenly observed and poignant feature debut, A Perfect Day for Caribou. We meet Herman (Jeb Barrier), a scruffy, world-weary man as he records what seem to be his last words, a scattered, stream-of-consciousness recollection of memories, stories, and advice for his estranged son, Nate (Charlie Plummer), before he kills himself. As he stares down the barrel of an unfulfilled and disappointing life, his recordings are those of a man making up for lost time. Rutherford, for his part, with a distinctly attuned understanding of human behavior and its peculiar relationship to pacing, provides his characters with a few extra moments they weren’t expecting, to see how they might fill them.

An unexpected call from Nate puts a temporary stop to Herman’s suicidal plans. He waits for him at a local cemetery, filling out the empty moments with cigarettes and distant gazing until a car pulls up. An older Black man gets out, however, and the film asks us to keep waiting. When Nate eventually shows up with his seven-year-old son, Ralph, in tow, Caribou becomes an unexpected journey through physical and psychological space, one in which the characters’ ruminations on fatherhood, purpose, and the past expand and contract to fill their environment, be it the confines of Herman’s truck, the fenced-in plots of the cemetery, or later, when Ralph suddenly goes missing, the endless expanse of the Oregon wilderness.

Caribou’s black-and-white visual palette and strained interpersonal relationships might recall to some viewers Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, and its arid milieu might remind of Gus Van Sant’s more existentially bleak Gerry. Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff and Old Joy are also aesthetic and thematic bedfellows (a number of actors in Caribou, thanks to the Oregon setting, have had bit parts in Reichardt films over the years). What really stands out, and what gives Caribou its walloping emotional resonance, is a Fordian elegance that marries space and character, a methodical precision and artistic fluidity that allows the lingering resentment and anger between an estranged father and son to inform their near-mythical journey through the desert.

But these Fordian qualities don’t overwhelm or threaten to make Caribou into something it isn’t; rather, they imbue even the most seemingly insignificant of moments with an unexpected weight. For example, just after Nate and Herman realize Ralph has gone missing, we see Herman, carrying a box of old possessions, attempt to hurriedly climb over a locked gate. The difficulty of his movements emphasizes his urgency, yet undercuts it at the same time. When he makes it over the edge, he continues running alongside a fence that thrusts out into the open space at the back of the frame, reminiscent of countless Ford masterpieces from The Long Gray Line to Wagon Master. This awareness of the screen’s crucial, and often underutilized, third axis is what made Ford a painter of the screen, and it’s what ensures Caribou, despite its orchestration as a film about being lost, never feels lost itself.

Herman and Nate’s excursion into the Oregon wilderness is, of course, more than just a search for Ralph — it’s also a search for common ground; something that can help them make sense of the choices they have made in life, and the state of their fraught relationships both past and present. The sameness of the Oregon landscape, its endless succession of sparsely vegetated hills and open expanses, allows this inner exploration to take center stage. But if Caribou’s emphasis on open space, empty time, and suppressed feelings ever risks depersonalization, Rutherford knows just as well when to course-correct. Barrier and Plummer’s weathered faces are occasional sights of profound yet subdued emotional depths. Plummer, in particular, is nearly unrecognizable to those who know him best from Andrew Haigh’s similarly rural Oregon-set, coming-of-age tale, Lean on Pete. Where Haigh’s film hinged upon Plummer’s heart-wrenchingly tender innocence, Rutherford’s wrings him out, rendering him a rugged and grizzled father, aged far beyond his barely 20-plus years.

Along the way, Herman and Nate narrowly escape death by a deer hunter who didn’t see them in the woods. They stop and rest with her, drink water, and even, strangely, let her take some of Nate’s heart medication. By the end of the film, she’s met at a local bar and made friends with the older Black man from the cemetery, their unlikely bond a soothing counterpoint to the abiding sense of disconnect and strain between Herman and Nate. And so, when comes the moment that Herman and Nate find Ralph, it’s no cause for rousing emotional flourishes, not from the filmmaker nor from the actors. As one reunion forms, another breaks, and we never see Herman and Nate on screen together for the rest of the film. It ends as fractured as it began. Herman can once again plan his suicide in solitude, and Nate will return to his wife, resentments no less pronounced. They may not have solved anything, mended any wounds, or even come close to reconciling — these are men, we’ve learned, less of introspection than of rumination. But at least they filled the time they were given.

DIRECTOR: Jeff Rutherford;  CAST: Charlie Plummer, Jeb Berrier, Rachael Perrell Fosket;  DISTRIBUTOR: Fred Senior Films;  STREAMING: April 2;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 35 min.