Time travel is fertile ground in movies. Whereas a heady film like Tenet (2020) quickly falls apart with its explanation of how the central conceit functions, a comparatively dumber film like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) succeeds with its structural approach. Audiences will accept most things as a given provided the narrative is sufficiently intriguing, and by stopping every 10 seconds to metaphorically — or, in Tenet’s case, literally — sketch out complicated mathematical equations on a blackboard, viewers are less likely to be swept up in what’s happening onscreen, or indeed to accept things as they are. The Long Walk, the latest from Mattie Do — Laos’ first and, so far, only female director — understands that for time travel to make sense, all one has to do is present it as is. For Do, it’s a feeling more than a fact.
Crucially, Do — working from a script by regular collaborator Christopher Larsen — doesn’t ever state plainly what’s going on in The Long Walk. There are references to characters walking the same road for decades (the long journey of the title) and overlaps in the stories being told by the younger and older set, but nobody is hopping into a DeLorean and setting the timer back 10 years, or even 10 minutes. There’s a lovely lyricism to how the story unfolds. Do takes her time, drip-feeding the audience crucial details without relying too heavily on exposition, and never signposting that something or someone is important or why. It’s an incredibly pared-back approach to this kind of fantastical tale, which ordinarily would have gadgets coming out of characters’ ears.
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The world in which the protagonist, credited only as The Old Man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy), exists closely mirrors our own, but subtle differences here and there — not always upgrades, either — suggest that this is some distant time in the future. Planes overhead dump endless chemtrails, which should make conspiracy theorists happy, while food is dispensed in vacuum-sealed bags before being dumped in boiling water, like gigantic Pot Noodles. The biggest tell that this is a science fiction version of the real world, though, is the digital display embedded in each character’s arm, which is used to dispense currency. It does call to mind that awful Justin Timberlake movie In Time (2011), but the effect is better realized in The Long Walk, and not overdone. As with everything else, Do doesn’t linger too long on it.
Do’s narrative focuses on The Old Man, a young boy (Por Silatsa, impressive) and a young woman whose mother has gone missing. Since the elder lady suffers from dementia, the townspeople assume that she’s wandered off into the wilderness and is as good as dead, but her daughter refuses to give up hope. The Old Man is known for communicating with spirits, so he’s called upon to figure out whether The Mother is still alive out there. Since this isn’t a cashless society, despite the future arms dispensing money, The Old Man is lured by the promise of payment. But really, his decision to help this young woman has more to do with a long-held desire to make up for failing his own mother as a young boy, when all he could do was helplessly stand by as she succumbed to lung cancer. Suffice to say, it’s a lot to get through, and that’s barely even scratching the surface of what’s truly going on in The Long Walk.
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The Long Walk is a demanding film, of both your time and attention. Do is in no rush to get to the finish line, as the film is nearly two hours long. By setting both the present day and past action in the same village, she blurs the lines to such an extent that sometimes the story is difficult to follow. Not everything comes together in the end, but what does work is so impactful, and the repercussions so devastating, that it’s easy to let that other stuff go. Do’s ambitions are often restricted by the tools she has at her disposal, but The Long Walk never feels like a no-budget take on time travel. The little touches, such as futuristic smartphones and the microchips everybody has embedded in their skin so the government can keep track of them, are enough to sell the discomfiting setting.
Moreover, by toggling between now and then, Do and Larsen can easily provide a commentary on real-world issues under the guise of arthouse weirdness. There are plenty of ghosts and dead bodies in The Long Walk, along with one gnarly, and brilliantly executed, instance of body horror, but this isn’t a particularly scary film otherwise. The atmosphere is certainly strange and disconcerting, but much of the action takes place in the harsh light of day. And even when a corpse is discovered by a child or a woman’s body is painstakingly prepared for burial, Do’s touch is so light, and the work of cinematographer Matthew Macar so luminous, the dread never fully takes hold. Macar’s gorgeously composed shots showcase a corner of the world rarely seen onscreen, at least not by western audiences, and even in The Long Walk’s harshest moments the beauty of the landscape shines through.
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Chanthalungsy is astonishing in the lead role. The actor has a Pierce Brosnan vibe to him, albeit more weathered and with a sadness that seeps into his bones. His Old Man is a prickly, constantly vaping and wholly antisocial character who’s blessed or perhaps cursed with strange gifts he can’t share with anyone else, and yet he feels compelled to use them in a desperate attempt to change what he cannot. The Long Walk is about how every choice in life matters, and everything is cyclical, but it’s also about accepting that sometimes it’s better to move forward, no matter how painful, rather than wasting what little time we have on Earth ruminating on what’s come before. Chanthalungsy plays it beautifully, a million conflicting emotions reading on his face at any one time, from anger to desperation, loneliness and even utter pig-headedness.
It’s unclear whether The Old Man is stuck in some kind of time loop, or if he’s engineering this impossible situation as a punishment for perceived past indiscretions. Whichever way one interprets the story, there’s no denying its emotional resonance. Although The Long Walk asks more questions than it answers, it’s satisfying in its own way. Heady and thought-provoking, the film’s painterly compositions and sharp social commentary provide an easy entryway into a world most viewers will not recognize, but one that is immediately captivating regardless. Although Do takes a long time to get where she’s going, with the languid, patience-testing pacing making the film a challenging watch even in the softer moments, The Long Walk is more than worth the journey.
Yellow Veil Pictures released The Long Walk digitally on March 1, 2022.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.