Directed by: Jack Pettibone Riccobono
Written by: Jack Pettibone Riccobono, Andrew Ford, Shane Slattery-Quintanilla
Produced by: Jack Pettibone Riccobono, Joey Carey, Jihan Robinson, Shane Slattery-Quintanilla
Executive Produced by: Terrence Malick, Natalie Portman, Chris Eyre, Gavin Dougan, Erik Fleming, Sydney Holland, Stefan Nowicki
Cinematography by: Jack Pettibone Riccobono, Shane Slattery-Quintanilla
Editing by: Andrew Ford, Michael J. Palmer, Adelaide Papazoglou
Music by: Nicholas Britell
How many Terrence Malick-produced films have you seen in a single year? I don’t know about you, but already, I count four in 2016: just after I saw Laura Dunn’s genius Wendell Berry doc, The Seer, at SXSW (where Dunn and Lee Daniel, its cinematographer, were awarded a Special Jury Prize), Malick’s Knight of Cups premiered to some lambasting in theaters. Then Almost Holy, the disturbing Ukraine-shot documentary about Gennadiy Mokhnenko, started touring the U.S.; and now The Seventh Fire, a film Malick executive-produced and is presenting with Natalie Portman by the director Jack Pettibone Riccobono, has opened on the coasts to some acclaim in limited release. Since Malick’s involvement with these projects varies in scale, it is hard to judge the looks and tones of these films through that lens, and I won’t try. But Riccobono’s film sure feels like auteurist canon – and it’s not just because of all the whispering and magic hour landscapes.
The Seventh Fire is Riccobono’s first nonfiction feature, and it is a beautiful, upsetting debut, the rare document that feels like its makers happened upon the story rather than planned its happening in the first place. In Missouri, the American Indian drug-dealer Rob Brown spends ten days on the White Earth Indian Reservation before returning to prison for the fifth time. Brown is a mumbling, sensitive-browed hulk who writes poetry in the moments when he’s not doctoring crystal meth for the local teenagers, including his protégé, Kevin. A father and a paradox, Brown’s impenetrability comes up against Riccobono’s camera (the director shares cinematography credit with Shane Slattery-Quintanilla) with brute force, proving once again what happens when (emotionally) immovable objects and (imploring) unstoppable forces come together: explosion.
Luckily for Riccobono, the drama of Brown’s and Kevin’s lives is dramatically bursting at the seams, yet the imagery of such is not. Ruby-edged sunsets, children on swing sets, little county fairs: for all the misery and the turmoil in this damaged landscape – in fact, the opening shot is of a burning chair – The Seventh Fire is a quiet, becalmed movie, one that shames the polished and proselytizing work that many major nonfiction filmmakers seem to make on a combination of Red Bull and anger about the environment, Hillary Clinton, or corporations’ misbehaviors. Brown is a sullen figure, and Riccobono follows his exploits – which include loving walks through the park with his pregnant girlfriend as well as personal late-night rendezvous with trashy clients – like a bird expecting a worm to pop its head up from the ground. His and Slattery-Quintanilla’s camerawork is almost in repose, shy in its relationship to the subjects without ever abandoning them. Like Malick’s best moments through Nestor Almenedros, Haskell Wexler, or Emmanuel Lubezki, the photography here is meditative, curious, but not enflamed.
This is a somehow unusual tone for a film about American Indians, neither decisively comic nor tragic in the way such movies tend to be. Thinking of executive-producer Chris Eyre’s 90’s comedy Smoke Signals, one realizes how pleasant and poppy these films can sometimes be; finally, here is a somber nonfiction yang to Eyre’s ying. Brown, for example, is a melancholy figure out of Camus’s The Stranger, stuck between a kind of numbed apathy and an intellectual interest in inner growth. In jail, he reads and writes, and cracks jokes with the (white) officers around him; and we also see him towering heads above a line of other First Peoples, imprisoned for god-knows-what. Likewise, Kevin, his protégé, hides amongst the “friends” he deals for, refusing close relationships of any kind. Both are men without profound expressiveness, and the film apes that complicated emotional quietness.
It does not seem from this film that Riccobono and his team were interested in indicting the imperialistic evisceration (or if you prefer, the stunting, though a near wipe-out is still a wipe-out to me) of American Indian cultural health and growth. That would have been easy, and in fact, imperialism makes appearances in human form here: in the face of the European-descended kids freeloading cigarettes off Kevin; and in the dismissive gift store owner from a nearby neighborhood. Certainly the White Earth Indian Reservation itself appears as a hellish place to those of the cushioned middle classes who will see this film in its run at the Metrograph in New York City and the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles this month (after which it will expand and tour around the country through Film Movement). But Brown and his friends are living in their world without much clear regret, not much different than the denizens of cramped quarters of inner-city Istanbul, the rural midsections of Montana, or the seemingly untouched islands of the Pacific.
That Riccobono and Slattery-Quintanilla capture characters that embody that devil-may-careness is, to me, the film’s greatest gift, and evidence of an embedded empathy within the filmmakers. And in that, we find the clearest visual and emotional connection with the honorable Malick oeuvre.