Credit: Level 33 Entertainment
Before We Vanish by Greg Nussen Featured Film

Cottontail — Patrick Dickinson

June 4, 2024

Patrick Dickinson’s Cottontail is an unusual type of ghost story. Its apparitions, such as they are, appear mostly in flashbacks, half-remembered tales, and, most prominently, in a letter delivered from beyond the grave. But this is no horror film, and the type of scares Dickinson traffics in are more existential and romantic, the kind of spiritual appearances that ask us to reexamine relationships and regrets.

Following Kenzaburo (Lily Franky), a chain-smoking novelist of indiscriminate success, Cottontail is a film about the grips of grief, the fluid boundaries between the living and the dead, and the ever-shifting difficulties of interpersonal communication. As Kenzaburo reflects on the death of his dementia-addled wife Akiko (played as a young woman by Yuri Tsunematsu and in later life by Tae Kimura), he is forced to reckon with all the ways he has avoided adventure and ignored the pressing demands of life’s corners. The film’s main thrust centers around a request from Akiko, delivered by her Buddhist priest, that Kenzaburo and his somewhat distant son Toshi (Ryô Nishikido) scatter her ashes in the calming waters of England’s Lake Windermere, a request that spawns a road journey of unexpected difficulty.

Once in England, Kenzaburo overhears his son talking disparagingly of him to his wife Satsuki (Rin Takanashi) and so sets off alone, a rash decision which inevitably sees him lost in the countryside, hundreds of miles away from where he has intended to go, with very little English to aid him. It’s here that he meets father and daughter John and Mary (real-life father and daughter Ciarán and Aiofe Hinds, respectively), whose curiously similar story creates a shared bond that eventually steers Kenzaburo in the right direction, both physically and emotionally.

Cottontail’s narrative beats are pretty standard and thin, and the film runs out of gas almost immediately once its tensions are introduced, but Dickinson is able to deliver a decently engaging portrait on the strength of honest performances by Franky and Nishikido, who encompass all the violently fluctuating emotions of grief in the immediate aftermath of an unexpected death. The film moves along at a pretty laborious pace, but one that feels well-connected to the opaque cloudiness of trauma; Dickinson’s career as a documentarian manifests itself best here in how authentic and straightforward his two leads are drawn. On the flip side, other characters can tend to feel like mere window dressing, plot pieces rather than full-fledged people; John and Mary, and Satsuki in particular, feel no better utilized than props.

In fact, some props receive better attention. In one touching visual leitmotif, Kenzaburo frequently pours a second beer for his absent wife, a stirring visual metaphor for a man who is simultaneously, and paradoxically, avoidant of and indulgent in the grief that binds him. Mark Wolf’s cinematography is pretty without being ornate, and the film’s moments of reconciliation, though certainly clichéd, are true enough to be appreciated for their emotional intensity. Yet it’s tough to shake the impression that the film seems more focused on conveying a feeling than exploring or establishing the complexity of its characters. Like Akiko’s memories, the film fades rapidly, a cottontail hiding behind the bushes.

DIRECTOR: Patrick Dickinson;  CAST: Lily Franky, Ryô Nishikido, Tae Kimura, Rin Takanashi;  DISTRIBUTOR: Level 33 Entertainment;  IN THEATERS: June 7;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 34 min.