Director: Bela Tarr
Runtime: 146 minutes
I have to confess that I admire the work of Hungarian director Bela Tarr from a distance. With the exception of Werckmesiter Harmonies (2000), Tarr's style often leaves me cold. However, given that The Turin Horse, officially released in the US this year, marks Tarr's supposed retirement, I figured I had to give his farewell work a shot. For those who already have definitive opinions on Tarr - brilliant auteur or pretentious drivel peddler - don't expect The Turin Horse to change your mind. Those in love with his aesthetic will likely find much to satisfy them (though whether they consider it a major or minor work may vary), while the other side will struggle to make it through the two and a half hour endeavor. And, try as I might, I could not help but land in the latter camp.
Opening with a small anecdote about Friedrich Nietzsche having a breakdown about a beaten horse, Tarr opens the film with a blustery long shot of said horse pulling its master and his cart home through a windstorm, accompanied by repetitive, dirge-like music (Fair warning: If you're a Tarr virgin and the opening doesn't do much for you, then perhaps it's best to take a nap or just make your way for the exit). Once home, the man, the horse, and the man's daughter go about their monotonous routines as apocalyptic, gale-force winds continue to rage around them.
It would make for quite the atmosphere if Tarr's signature pacing wasn't there to drag it all into the ground. The director's love of long takes has been established for quite a while now. Whether simple or complex, these takes can produce masterful results (the riot sequence in Werckmeister, for instance). Yet what often plagues Tarr's work, The Turin Horse most certainly included, is that the long takes stretch any potential feeling or atmosphere to the point where they wear off. Almost all of the shots in the film have moments that make one simply want to yell, "cut!"
Certainly not helping matters is the limited, repetitive nature of the plot. There are occasional diversions (a man who visits and asks to borrow some rum), but the majority of the scenes involve the man and his daughter dressing, going about their tasks, and then undressing. By the time the daughter began helping her father with his clothes for the fifth time, I was ready to throw something at the screen. Given the nature of the story and the pacing, one wonders if Tarr couldn't have achieved something more effective if he'd simply dared to cut it down to get the point across with greater efficiency. There are moments here and there that have the ability to register. Some of these moments are larger, such as the neighbor's visit, and others vanish after a few seconds, and can be as brief as a bit of framing and composition during a shot.
Yet with so little to latch onto, the film can't help but feel too long for its own good. We honestly know more about Mr. Nietzsche, who never appears on screen, than the father-daughter duo at the center of the story. Tarr keeps them at such a distance that they remain blank slates. If they have some deeper thematic purpose, it gets blown away with the winds quite early on. Sadly, the same applies to the whole of the director's swan song. It is a tiny piece of work that has been inflated into something overbearing, sluggish, and portentous.