Most filmmakers, if giving themselves a three-hour runtime, will do so because they have an exceptionally dense story to tell, or a world to build – even the glacially-paced cinema of, say, Nuri Bilge Ceylan at least offers a bevy of beautiful images. For his astoundingly confident feature debut, though, Australian writer-director David Easteal has no interest in bowing to this convention. Instead, The Plains is a film deliberately devoid of incident, simply following a man’s drive home after work day in and day out, barely ever leaving his car or changing camera set-ups. It’s a bold gamble, but one that mostly pays off, building a warm and rich portrait of a life through the simple act of commuting.
The man in question is Andrew Rakowski, a real-life Melbourne lawyer playing a slightly fictionalised version of himself (though The Plains mostly looks and sounds like a documentary, Easteal has clarified that it isn’t, and that much of the film is actually scripted). Every day, he drives home from a job he neither likes or really dislikes, always starting the journey with a sweet ritual of first calling his aged mother in her care home and then ringing his wife Cheri to let her know he’s on his way.
This system gets an interruption every now and again, generally when Andrew gives a lift home to his younger colleague David (Easteal himself, adding to the long list of credits he has on this movie, also acting as producer, editor, and sound recordist). We never hear the other side of Andrew’s phone calls, only his responses, so it’s in these in-person chats with David that we really learn about him, slowly picking up his history and worldview while a friendship of circumstance emerges between the two, earnest and sometimes awkward, always tinged with impermanence as David looks for a new job.
It’s this idea of time not quite wasted but maybe not used to its fullest that The Plains really wants to play with, and the occasional boredom of the format it chooses is actually incredibly fitting for this thesis. Every so often across the mammoth runtime you might find yourself zoning out, but when you clock back in, you’re immediately somewhere familiar. It calls to mind the sort of autopilot you go on during an over-familiar journey, a charming and powerful melding of form and theme.
The constancy of the camera’s placement in the back seat of Andrew’s car – you see full faces very few times in The Plains – means that the occasional breaks feel monumental, especially when we get to see the drone footage that Andrew shoots as a hobby, always striking aerial footage of the vast plains that make up the final leg of his drive home. It’s hardly the prettiest or most cinematic footage, but Easteal’s editing manages to make it feel touchingly important nonetheless – an effective microcosm of this strange but solid experiment of a movie.