I’m in two minds about Last Winter, the debut feature from John Shank. On the one hand, you’ve got an accomplished, serious, occasionally visually striking drama about a young farmer coming to terms with the loss of his industry/world. On the other hand, it feels like a film that’s predictable from start to finish, from every single character to every plot movement. There is nothing new here.
We are introduced to Johann (a commanding Vincent Rottiers), who is toiling alone on the farm that he inherited from his dead father. The farm is based in small village in central France, a stark, blustery landscape, bringing to mind some of Bruno Dumont’s film terrains. He is evidently dedicated to his work and revels in the environment. Shank shows him milling in idyllic rivers and tending to sun-glazed animals. He is supported by a local girlfriend, who waits each night for him to climb into bed. All rosy so far.
The edenic existence is shattered, however, by the realisation that the farming co-op that Johann is part of, is suffering. As the head of the co-op, it’s Johann’s ultimate decision whether to give in to Helier (Michel Subor), the middle man between the co-op and the larger foreign companies who want to dictate the farmers work. Johann, ever stubborn, is reluctant to adapt to modern demands.
Coming from a rural background, these issues are not unfamiliar to me, and there are many news reports about farms capitulating under bankruptcy, and even suicides. This is clearly a serious issue and one that I have not seen represented on screen much, if at all. Yet, it might be this familiarity that with the subject that makes the film slightly staid for me.
Perhaps it is because the director Shank, American born, was not already ingrained in the culture that he is depicting; does his outsider status perhaps make the film feel a little inauthentic? Altogether the film feels somewhat by the numbers. His girlfriend is of little or no consequence, barely saying a few words, and then there is the inexplicable presence of his mentally disturbed sibling, a strange staple of independent dramas (What’s eating Gilbert Grape?, Lost Times), whose only role seems to be to inject unnecessary angst to the story and bludgeon home how compassionate the protagonist is.
There are elements of Malick in the idyllic shots of nature and landscape, but these are mostly drowned out by the gloomy middle section. There is a particular sequence which seems indebted to Days of Heaven‘s famous locust spectacle. Bruno Dumont appears to be another reference point, with his stark portrayals of rural French life. Last Winter unfortunately feels like a lite version of these auteurs films, neither beautiful or otherworldly enough for Malick, or gritty and compelling enough to be a Dumont.
By the end I was pleading for Shank to refrain from an ‘open ending’. Once a thoughtful, challenging part of many art films, it now seems to be a weapon for lazy filmmakers unsure of how to end their story. Often there might not be a ‘right’ ending, but I think Last Winter had the choice of two interesting paths. It chose the middle road.