So if a filmmaker were to say to me, ‘Why hello, Erinivka, I am going to make a film. What sorts of things should I put in it if I wanted this film to earn a spot on your top films list?’, I would probably list a few things like:
- time travel or zombies or both
- solid, multidimensional female characters
- enough ambiguity / plot twists to keep me guessing
- a great score / soundtrack
- great locations
I have not been talking to any filmmakers recently (that I know of). So when I watched Safety Not Guaranteed last week and it ticked all the things on the list above with many added bits of wonderfulness, you’ll understand how pleasantly surprised I was and how I have been recommending it to just about everyone.
The basic premise is this: arrogant, vain journalist Jeff finds an ad in the newspaper advertising for ‘someone to go back in time with me. Bring your own weapons. You’ll get paid when we get back. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.’ He decides to travel from Seattle to a tourist trap town on the coast to investigate – but his real motivation is to seek out an old flame who he’s found on Facebook.* He takes with him two interns: surly, antisocial Darius and nerdy yet sensible Arnau.
The trio discover that the placer of the ad is Kenneth Calloway (fantastic-as-ever Mark Duplass), a reclusive grocery store shelving clerk who lives in a house in the woods as dilapidated as he is socially awkward. After Jeff botches his first meeting with Kenneth, Darius tries her luck. She soon finds herself balancing a growing friendship with Kenneth against what seems obvious – he’s delusional, paranoid, quite convinced he is building a time machine and ready to commit robbery to finish it. Meanwhile, Jeff is acting out a real-time version of searching for one’s past; he reconnects with his previous girlfriend and suddenly has to reckon with how he has spent the last fifteen years of his life. What’s brilliant is that the two storylines keep each other from being ridiculous by dealing with the same question – what is it we wish we could go back in time to change, and how would we change those things if we could?
If this all sounds very heavy, I suppose it’s because it is. Despite the heaviness, the film is utterly watchable because it lets the narrative come alive slowly and subtly, with plenty of humor. Kenneth is deadly serious about his ‘project’ and many of his lines sound like he has learned them straight from a bad action film (perhaps he has). Jeff’s hankering for years past and Arnau’s virginal gamer awkwardness complement each other perfectly and their odd-couple conversations about wasting one’s youth and growing too cynical are possibly the most profound statements the film makes. And Darius, though I initially feared she was in danger of being simply ‘Intelligent White Emo/Hipster Female’, proved to be a much warmer, more humane lead than anticipated.
Add in a couple of federal agents, a comically non-secret Top Secret Mission, a dulcimer, a score/sountrack by Ryan Williams of the band Guster and the following first lines between Darius and Kenneth…
Darius: Do you sell guns here?
Kenneth: What kind of guns?
Darius: I don’t know. Something sexy, and affordable, with killing power.
Kenneth: You should try C&R Guns in Welkins. The state of Washington does not allow the sale of firearms on the business premises of a grocer.
Darius: Hmm. What about those thingies, with the spikey ball at the end of the chain…thingies, you know, do you have those?**
Kenneth: What exactly is the intended use? Is there a pest problem or…hunting?
Darius: Well if your ad had been written properly I might have a better idea of what I need.
Kenneth: My ad?
Darius: It was sloppy. I hope you’ve done better with your calibrations.
Kenneth: Hey, my calibrations are flippin’ pinpoint.
…and you have a winning film. Even if there were no zombies.
* I’m thinking I need to keep a list of films in which Facebook features as a major influence on the plot, The Social Network not included.
** I may or may not have said, ‘a morning star, you idiot!’ out loud at this point.