When Empire Builder’s embroidered-looking title card flashes up on screen, the font is similar to a needlepoint you might see hanging in a country farmhouse kitchen asking to “bless this home.” Home life for Jenny (Kate Lyn Sheil) is anything but blessed, stuck in a loveless marriage with a superficially good-natured husband (Joe Swanberg), possessively micro-managing her through motherhood. Telling her how best to break down their baby’s chicken and take care of the child when he’s upset, even his positivity is passive aggressive, steamrolling his wife with all the reasons why they should settle down and buy in Chicago rather than move back to her childhood home in Montana. Everything between them feels purely functional, one gets the impression she only married him because he asked. Their clockwork schedule relationship of pre-planned date nights and Thai food on Fridays is banal. Just like the white collar hubby, whose clean cut, squared jawed looks mask curt and cutting judgements.
If Mr Swanberg ever finds time in his busy directing schedule (his latest, Drinking Buddies was recently released) and appearing in friend’s movies (You’re Next is out now) he’d be a perfect fit for a self-referring, callow leading man in a Neil LaBute play. Previously, Sheil played a character prone to uncontrollable, ear-scraping fits of rage in Sun Don’t Shine. She’s the polar opposite as Jenny, with a face set in stoned misery and alienation. Jenny doesn’t lash out or offer any resistance to the deadening rhythms of her life simply because there’s no alternative. She yearns to return to the countryside of her youth but now, saddled with a baby, her options are limited. Seemingly strangulated by the responsibilities of domesticity wherever she goes. That needlepoint title may be emblematic of country life simplicity, but it’s woven from stifling materials.
Desperate to decompress, Jenny takes the Empire Builder train out to the Big Sky Country with her baby. The husband, agreeing to meet them a few days later, has already arranged for Kyle the handyman (Bill Ross) to come and make some repairs on the house in his absence. During their brief time together, Jenny and Kyle slowly draw closer, an unmistakable attraction filling a void they each feel.
While the loaded title literally refers to the train transporting Jenny to temporary freedom, her countryside cabin is an empire of self, over which she finally achieves a sense of ownership. A bucolic ideal that she can call her own, it’s built with Kyle on equal terms, unlike the marriage from which she’s fled. Her relationship with the handyman intrigues; there’s a physical spark, but the ease Jenny feels around him is mostly in the way Kyle allows her to be herself. A wordless, mutually hesitant seduction, sat next to one another in the car one night, their hands finally touch, but its in such a shrinking, apprehensive manner that when editor David Lowery jump cuts from fumbling fingers to the two of them uncomfortably hugging indoors, you feel as though they sat there for hours before either worked up the nerve to let their intimacy progress. The next morning they wake up in the same bed, but it’s unclear if they actually slept together.
In only her second film, Kris Swanberg may lack her husband Joe’s prolific output, but thick with atmosphere and pregnant silence, her film feels more substantial. A scene in which Kyle and Jenny say nothing while her baby continues to shriek in the background, shows how the filmmaker is content to let the characters sit and just be, inviting us to watch them think without necessarily having the first clue what it is they’re thinking about.
As Jenny spends her days trying to reconnect with who she is, Lowery’s vibrant landscapes (so verdant you can smell the great outdoors) evoke the spiritually transformative power of the Montana plains. For the interior Chicago scenes, Lowery favours flush skin tones under simmering oranges and hot yellows, so that when Jenny arrives in the country, the film immediately feels less stuffy. The same burning yellow can be seen in the foliage, but it recedes into lush green as she walks the path towards the cabin. On a meagre budget there are frames here that stand comparison with the painterly grandeur and visual splendour of Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, so to hear Lowery shrug off his photographic contribution whilst doing some recent promotion his own directorial effort, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints as nothing more than a favour to a friend is ridiculous in its modesty.
Against a landscape so vividly captured and enigmatically alive, an ideally cast Kate Lyn Sheil feels right at home, having already played a nymph of nature in Sophia Takal’s Green. Make-up free and dressed in a way that fuses her identity with her surroundings, the forces working on and happening to Jenny, play openly across Sheil’s face even when it’s inexpressively fixed. Frankly, it’s a face that belongs in a Vermeer. Youthful looking but with sad eyes that age her, Sheil is weary before her time and wise beyond her years. With over twenty five credits already to her name (working repeatedly with filmmakers like the Swanbergs) Sheil truly is the Meryl Streep of mumblcore, despite Sight and Sound bestowing the same title on its recent cover star Greta Gerwig, who is nowhere as prolific in the scene and lacks both Sheil’s range and intensity.
Maybe that particular writer at S&S was unaware of Sheil (of her films, only VHS and You’re Next has been released this side of the pond) but that’s all set to change when she joins the cast of House of Cards for season two. In the meantime, Empire Builder is yet more evidence of the most exciting actress of her generation at work. Gerwig Schmerwig.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on September 1, 2013