Writer/director Kris Swanberg’s name isn’t one that gets mentioned all that often in regards to discussions based in and around indie filmmakers. Sadly, that sentiment unfortunately extends itself to encompass most (if not all) female filmmakers operating in the indie landscape. But, with her sophomore effort, Empire Builder, she confidently displays that she is more than capable of, not only crafting a compelling narrative, but also modifying the familiarities of said narrative into something altogether different.
The narrative, co-written with Kate Johnston, found at the center of Empire Builder happens to deal with one uncomplicated action, an elementary development seen as inevitable based on the build and structure of the storyline. Throughout the entirety of the beginning portions of the film, there doesn’t appear to be much of an effort placed on shrouding what could happen in mystery and/or ambiguity. Swanberg and Johnston’s interests lie in the field of the emotional, taking the time to display the emotional states of each character in an unembellished fashion relying on nothing but the body languages amid solitude and socialization, oscillating between fleeting moments of reflection and intimate interactions of playfulness and consideration.
Where Swanberg and Johnston’s screenplay diverges from the usual chain of events is in the handling of the emotional aspects that accompany this seemingly uncomplicated development after the fact. Usually, a film would use this opportunity to open things up in terms of emotions (whether through reactions or interactions) and drama, but not only do Swanberg and Johnston stick to their characters concealing their thoughts and feelings, they utilize this opportunity to do the inverse – the characters delving ever-inward.
All the fractured shards of potential narrative tangents born out of the basic plot point reside in the minds of the characters themselves. All uncertainty, all conflicting feelings are nestled deep inside the sanctum of their inner thoughts leaving the viewer in the dark, fumbling with speculation, oblivious to the actuality of the mental states, eagerly anticipating the story’s path. With communication degrading even further, any and all boundaries or limits remain undefined between the leads as intentions and future plans continue undiscussed with the characteristics and mannerisms of one person subtly shifting over time. The more the characters should open up and/or extend themselves to the viewer, the more inward they seem to become.
Because of the film’s refusal to divulge the inner workings of the narrative (or the potential endgame), opting instead to hint and insinuate, the task of emoting and communicating these subtleties for the actors multiplies in weight and importance, the production’s success resting squarely on the shoulders of the two leads: Kate Lyn Sheil as Jenny, the isolated mother adjusting to her surroundings and circumstances and Bill Ross IV as Kyle, the hired handyman helping with the estate until the husband (played by Joe Swanberg) is able to rendezvous at the new homestead.
Fortunately for the production both Sheil and Ross are capable of shouldering the load handling the task admirably, letting their respective physical performances – inconspicuous and mildly-decipherable – speak volumes through the silences of the scenes. Their physical performances merely consisting of subtle facial expressions and changes in body language, overall demeanors shifting slowly into unforeseen territories as true dispositions come to light after the fact.
One small, yet impactful, action entirely altering the dynamics of all future interactions and events, Swanberg’s Empire Builder is a great example of delicate filmmaking, evoking and provoking a multitude of thoughts while barely outwardly communicating any. The damaging effects on the dynamics of a relationship stemming from sex with everything hidden under uncertainty until it boils to the surface, Swanberg ends the film right after injecting a new dramatic element into the mix. Essentially cutting out the climax, but Empire Builder never really appeared to be interested in a climax originally, more so the ramifications and implications.