David Easteal's three-hour film, shot almost entirely from inside a car, makes mundanity into something genuinely profound
The average person in the UK spends 59 minutes per day commuting to and from work. For a Monday-to-Friday regular salaried job, that amounts to five hours of your time, vanishing into the road. Time is the central ingredient in The Plains, a film that makes you keenly aware of its passing, and the mundanity that can often go along with it.
This three-hour film is shot almost entirely from the backseat of a car being driven by Andrew (Andrew Rakowski), who is sometimes joined by his colleague David (David Easteal, also the film’s director), as they journey home after work from a legal firm on Melbourne’s freeways. Near the centre of the screen is the car’s digital clock, clearly visible, marking out the rituals and processes of each commute: the busy trunk road that leads to the motorway, the rhythmic light cycles, the broken-down cars closing off lanes.
The two have a curious, off-hand friendship: Andrew is the older, more talkative of the two, offering all sorts of unheeded advice; David prefers to sit back, allowing Andrew the floor. Andrew starts each commute by ringing his mother (suffering from dementia in a care home) and his wife. The radio sometimes speaks of climate change. Sometimes it features angry residents complaining about traffic. The only breaks in this single point of view are a handful of amateur aerial drone shots taken by Andrew on weekends and holidays, a respite from the complete linearity of the commute home.
The film’s structure and perspective is deliberately monotonous. What’s startling is how easy and engaging it is to watch. The Plains is sensitive and perceptive, scratching away at the repetition that shapes our lives, frittering away at our time even as it gives form to our day. Because beyond this monotony and the ever-present awareness of the passing of time there lies the inevitability of just what that passing means: death.
Andrew, who seems far keener to volunteer personal details than David, talks frequently of his mother and her deteriorating mental state. He talks of his dead sister, who dies of heart disease after a life marked by eating disorders. He talks of his mother-in-law, who has also died recently, and her relationship with his wife. He remembers helping out his veterinarian dad as a child, and the death and illness that comes with the territory. He appears happy-go-lucky and garrulous, having lived a comfortably middle-class life, whereby he can afford a new car every two years (the same cheap Hyundai every time, he says). But beneath all that, one senses a lilting anxiety or isolation.
In the car, in this bubble of semi-privacy in Melbourne’s traffic jams, sits an ageing man watching the time float by, the digital clock marking out each and every sixty seconds as they disappear forever. In this constant repetition, David Easteal finds something strangely profound. By limiting our point-of-view as spectators almost entirely to a single shot, he forces us to sit and engage with that mundanity, allowing it to seep into us. Wasted time, maybe, but the film is anything but.
The Plains is released on MUBI on 12 April.Where to watch