Sundance 2021: THE BLAZING WORLD

Carlson Young’s feature debut is a nightmarish, fantastical exploration of grief.

Shot during the pandemic, in the midst of a scorching Texas summer, The Blazing World is about quite possibly the last thing anyone wants to grapple with right now: being stuck in a house with your family with everyone at the end of their wits. Anyone looking for a reprieve from the chaos of the real world should look elsewhere. The kind of escapism The Blazing World offers is the kind that makes you glad you’re not one of the people onscreen. A gripping tale of grief and trauma, with enough nightmarish and fantastical imagery to imprint itself in viewers’ minds, The Blazing World is a work of catharsis by connection.

The film kicks off at the sprawling Winter house, tucked away in the middle of the idyllic Texas hill country. The trees and grass flow this way and that in the breeze, the kind of picturesque image plastered across postcards. It’s peaceful, without a neighboring house in sight, until you dig under the surface. Outside twin girls Margaret and Elizabeth (Josie and Lillie Fink) play, while inside Tom (Dermot Mulroney) and Alice (Vinessa Shaw) argue. As the parents’ fight escalates, an accident outside leaves Elizabeth dead. It’s a tragedy the family will struggle with the rest of their lives. Cut to 15–20 years later and adult Margaret (Carlson Young, who directs and co-wrote the screenplay) is on the verge of suicide, when a different path presents itself.

The Blazing World, an expansion of Young’s 2018 short of the same name, feels suffocating throughout, as if we’re watching each character slowly drown in their grief. The most affecting aspect of the story (which Young wrote with Pierce Brown) is the way it emphasizes just how isolating trauma can be even if it’s a shared experience. Tom finds solace in drinking, wearing his grief in an array of masculine clichés (which are called out within the film). Alice appears to be emotionally stunted, or maybe co-dependent is more accurate. Margaret has run out of options and the will to go on. Margaret, spurred on by a mysterious man (Udo Kier, obviously), goes down a rabbit hole into her own mind, facing everything she’s tried to avoid since Elizabeth’s death.

There’s much to admire, from Young’s command of the film’s tone to Shane Kelly’s arresting cinematography to the trio of lead performances by Young, Mulroney, and Shaw. That said there were stretches where the film became a bit of an endurance challenge. The abstract nature of Margaret’s interior experience gives the story an elasticity that sometimes stretches to its breaking point. Viewers that are able to stay on the film’s wavelength likely won’t have that issue, but it’s something that happened to me a couple times. In the hours since the movie ended, I’ve been trying to pinpoint exactly why the film didn’t always work for me. It’s not the writing, which I found to be compelling in its exploration of grief and compassionate toward its characters. Young makes a strong impression in her feature debut as a director. There’s something there, though, that kept me at arm’s length. I didn’t gel with the film, so it left me in a place where I admired it more than I enjoyed it.

The Blazing World made me think of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia and Amy Semeitz’s She Dies Tomorrow, movies that lock you in an uncomfortable headspace and search for meaning in the darkest parts of the human mind and experience. For that alone The Blazing World is worth watching.

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