The Builder Dir. R. Alverson

[Jagjaguwar; 2010]

Styles: slacker, drama
Others: Husbands, Old Joy, Stranger Than Paradise

As principal songwriter for Spokane (which formed in 1999 in Richmond, VA and quickly signed to Bloomington, Indiana’s Jagjaguwar Records), Rick Alverson has spent quite a bit of time establishing his indie cred. His sensibilities are thoroughly informed by the best of the 20th century, and the almost academic stance he takes toward art has enabled him to create some very thought-provoking pieces. Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate that well onto film. Alverson stated that, with The Builder, he wanted to make a picture about the gulf between the initial idea of a work and the work itself, and how seldom these two align. As meta as the following might seem, the director’s own cinematic failings sort of prove his point for him.

Colm O’Leary, who co-wrote the film, plays the titular character, an Irish Imigrant and skilled tradesman who buys himself a small piece of land in the Catskills. Unable to find work in coastal Queens, he sets out to his newly acquired property dead-set on building a historically accurate Cape House. And this is where the wheels fall off. Most artistically inclined people have experienced now and then an indefinable fatigue while trying to start a new work, but O’Leary is surely one of the hardest cases I’ve ever seen. Overcome by despair, he mopes about his land, unable to start his project. This is all very compelling, but the way in which Alverson attempts to impart emotion and meaning to these scenes of malaise is annoyingly contrived.

Unwilling to pull a full-on Tarkovsky-tracking extravaganza, Alverson’s camera languishes, employing tricks and arbitrary focus shifts that might’ve looked cool when Cassavetes used them, but now just seem tired and unimaginative. Overly long and static shots of wildflowers do nothing to embellish the conflicted emotional state of O’Leary, and figuring out how to correctly pull focus doesn’t make you the next Sven Nykvist. The sheer volume of such camera work distracts from the actual story of the film, which loses focus almost as quickly as its main character.

In contrast to The Builder’s stylistic disappointments, O’Leary’s acting is first-rate. He pulls off an understated and measured embodiment of sustained despair — one of the hardest emotions to “play true.” When the camera actually gets around to spending some time focused on him, we’re drawn increasingly further into his rapidly disintegrating character. Bogged down by the fact that he hasn’t done anything with his property, and feeling the pressure of mounting debt, The Builder heads down to Richmond. Washing dishes at a greasy spoon and spending his off hours riding fixed-gear bikes with guys half his age, his failure is finally complete.

R. Alverson is a director unduly burdened by his visual influences. If his wandering eye had been half as restrained as Mr. O’Leary’s performance, The Builder would be a truly good film. However, the lack of cohesive vision and a poorly done editing job leave the work feeling much more pretentious than profound. However, Alverson and O’Leary will be releasing another film soon, this time with the aid of indie stalwart Will Oldham, called New Jerusalem. The new project looks interesting as all hell — let’s just hope Alverson has toned-down the camera magic a little bit this next go-round.

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