Some have termed “Pilgrim Song” Homeric, for it’s portrayal of a one man’s journey throughs the hills of Kentucky. But the label is an unfit over-simplification. Much more in line with the travails of Chaucer for its moral ambiguity, or Kerouac for a willingness to meander and surprise, Martha Stephens has paced her subject on a trail. And yet the road he follows is much less linear.
Making its Louisville premiere Friday night as part of the 4th annual Flyover Film Festival, “Pilgrim Song” screened for a capacity crowd in the Speed Art Museum auditorium. Just the second full-length effort from Kentucky director Martha Stephens, whose film “Passengers Pigeons” was featured in last year’s festival, this newest picture once again showcased what are arguably the filmmaker’s greatest strengths. Namely, a genuine abundance of talent coupled with a ever-apparent reverence for her roots.
Stephens said of her intentions for “Pilgrim Song” (during a post-screening Q&A hosted by Louisville-native actor William Mapother) that she wanted to tell a story which illuminated the unspoken character/beauty of her state and its people.
“Pilgrim Song” opens to find its main character James (Louisville-native Timothy Morton) caught in a psychological impasse that’s further imploded his otherwise introverted personality into near emotional paralysis. He’s just been pink-slipped at a thankless teaching position, which was a definite plan B in itself after a fizzled music career, and has decided that his only hope for new direction lies in an escapist summer of wilderness and contemplation. Less than pleased with James’ decision to hike the entirety of the Sheltowee Trace, significant other Joan (Karrie Crouse) remains ultimately supportive yet obviously troubled as to the trip’s implications for their already strained relationship. (See trailer below.)
Stephens cited 1970’s New Hollywood and its notable figures (Huston, Ashby, Cassavetes, etc) as major stylistic inspirations for “Pilgrim Song”, and the influence is easy to spot. Firstly, in a willingness to allow plot progression to take a backseat to character interaction at every opportunity, and secondly, with a general ambivalence towards both specificity and concrete conclusion. (Alongside a boatload of zooms!) Thankfully, it’s exactly this mentality that empowers the film beyond mere regional nostalgia. If Stephens had beaten us over the head with exactly what was so special about Kentucky it would have been hollow. But as a cinematic impressionist, she’s scary-effective.
Individual performances are no less impressive, with Louisville-native turned Memphis- transplant Timothy Morton (James) portraying a stoicism that can be frustratingly opaque at any single instant, yet shockingly relatable over time. Bryan Marshal was equally compelling as Lyman (an unlikely and somewhat unwanted acquaintance), and acts as an effective foil to James, in that he is capable of actively reaching out to others but is simultaneously no less afflicted. Both “Passengers Pigeons” alums, Marshal and Morton joked during the Q&A that the parts were hardly stretches for them (Stephens actually wrote the script with both actors in mind), but the handful of sequences of effortless awkward-plutonic-intimacy between the two men suggests a bit more credit is due.
As evidenced by a consistent amount of gushing thus far, it seems a bit redundant to restate my utter fascination with this film and its creator. But as a fellow bluegrass-native, there is also this unsettling “uncanny valley”-ish feeling that comes with seeing the Louisville skyline or Red River Gorge on-screen. Sure, it’s perhaps that my eyes are simply more accustomed to the cinematic sites of Los Angeles or New York, but it almost felt as though by way of watching this film I was some how being revealed. And that’s the core of the uneasiness.
Martha Stephens is taking our little corner of the world and sharing. Not as part of a lame tourism commercial, a basketball championship or even a two-minute Horserace. But on ground-level, person to person experience that’s drenched with character and humanity. By showing her characters dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of the wilderness they inhabit she is only further demonstrating that one need not be large to be large-than-life.
And did I mention it’s gorgeous?
Chris Ritter is a Louisville-native freelance writer, journalist and blogger enthusiastic about all things entertainment, media and technology.
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