The most important characters in Putty Hill never appear onscreen. The film centers around the death of a young man, Cody, in the fictional Baltimore suburb of Putty Hill, but all you ever see of him is a photograph near the end. Even more glaring is the invisibility of the anonymous man behind the camera, who frequently questions the characters as though he were a documentary filmmaker and they were his subjects. Our knowledge of the dead young man is thus filtered through his friends, family, and acquaintances, and our knowledge of them filtered through the explicit presence and implicit impetus of the movie’s director, Matt Porterfield.
When Porterfield’s not interrogating his characters directly, his camera trails behind them with indiscriminate curiosity. It’s a steady witness to everyday community events — an afternoon at the skate park, a day drinking at the river. This lethargic, quotidian ambience gives the movie an eerily human quality, which is enhanced by the improvised responses of the actors and the sometimes painful naturalism of the sound editing. It’s not a terrible stretch — although it is an unavoidably emphatic one — to say that Porterfield’s embrace of his actors’ idiosyncrasies recalls the expertly restrained amateurism of Robert Bresson’s actor-models or the radical authenticity of Harmony Korine’s character writing.
The combination of a hybrid format, improvised minutiae, and uncompromising realism cannot fail to set a film apart. But such techniques are hard to harness, and Putty Hill sometimes gets carried away in their usage. The formula proves least stable when emotions get out of hand, which admittedly does not happen very often. In one seemingly endless balcony scene, Cody’s cousin chews out her deadbeat father, wailing and contorting herself against the railing in a tediously one-sided confrontation. And during Cody’s funeral, held in a local bar, the film’s slow pacing and flat reserve only amplify the pain of listening to bad karaoke and awkward memorials.
Subtler scenes, however, take on an uncanny fidelity. The film’s closing sequence, as two girls take a nocturnal trip to pay their last respects to the deceased, carries with delicate grace its overtones of sadness, fear, and exhaustion. The sound of the road at night, the point-of-view placement of the camera on the dashboard, and the obscure darkness of the location make these all-too-mundane emotions vivid and real. And really, Putty Hill is all about the mundane. Unlike Korine or Bresson, Porterfield lets the smaller inconsistencies and the pettier tragedies take up the most space in the story. His characters seem neither bizarre nor universal, but heartbreakingly average.
In the end, it’s those two missing figures that resound most strongly. As the movie shifts from one account to another and the details of Cody’s life build up, we begin to see him — and the impact of his absence — with more clarity. Who Cody was does not matter so much as what he meant to the community of Putty Hill. And, of course, that community would have been nothing but a faceless idea without the intervention of Porterfield — or whatever name you want to give him — and his polite but unsolicited prompting. Putty Hill has an indirect beauty, like watching someone listen to her favorite song on headphones. Coming away from the movie, one is sure that Cody’s story is worth telling and equally sure that its meaning depends entirely on who you ask.