Directed by: Tjebbo Penning | 73 minutes | drama | Actors: Marcel Faber, Yonan Orjubin, Jared Normad, Steven C. Fallis, Jess Osuna, Milo Penning, Jillian Crane, Jim McGurn, Aimee McCabe, Nelson Hume, Marya Cohn, Trudy Clever
A lost man is walking the busy streets of New York. A bustle that you only recognize in background noise, and perhaps from an image you have of this metropolis. The camera remains constantly close to the lost soul. The idea of loneliness in a metropolis has thus been brought to light, and will remain with you until the credits. Because even in scenes where you expect crowds of people, such as in the departure hall of Schiphol or the subway in Manhattan, the isolated protagonist remains the only figure in the picture.
“Great Kills Road” opens strongly with this scene, by involving the viewer with the protagonist, both in idea and in performance, and thus with the theme of this feature film. Director Tjebbo Penning has the relatively short running time of 73 minutes more than enough to convey the message of his story to his audience in a surprising and compelling way. Mentioning the origin and background of that message would actually give away too much of the plot. Suffice it to say that the story that Penning wrote with protagonist Marcel Faber and based on the theme of Dostojefsky’s “Guilt and Penance” embraces a quest that exposes various ethical dilemmas, but leaves the resulting discussion to the viewer.
Maas de Boer (Marcel Faber) is a desolate, withdrawn man who has to live with a heavy conscience and an urge for an inner calm, which he can no longer find at home in the Dutch polder. His ex-wife Sarah (Jillian Crane) left him and his seriously handicapped son eight years ago for a new life in New York. His answer to her postcard from that metropolis, with only the words “I’m sorry” on the back, only follows after the same eight years, as we learn during the first half of the film from flashbacks to the Netherlands; he has decided to go after her and leaves a similar note, in addition to a considerable amount of money, on which he writes that his son must be well taken care of. When he arrived in Manhattan, however, he failed to discover Sarah’s new address on his own, and his melancholic wanderings reverted to a daily pattern: a rhythm of wandering around during the day, repeatedly ending at night with a few bottles of beer at his miserable and claustrophobic small hotel room, where his thoughts keep wandering in a voice-over to his son who stayed behind. A rhythm in which the viewer also gets stuck.
The street scene is authentic; the budget does not allow any more. The simple camera work and the sometimes clumsy close-ups only put the focus more effectively on the shoulders of the protagonist. The limited interaction that Maas has in a film in which hardly any dialogue occurs is almost entirely based on improvisations of the actor and his environment; a few important moments aside. This seemingly light-hearted approach gives the story an artistic layer, which is most evident when New York is allowed to play its supporting role in the background; a documentary style that, like so many predecessors in the film world, pays a subtle ode to a city that never sleeps.
However, this approach is not completely flawless in implementation. Sarah thus remains a fairly flat character, who is not really discussed in the story outside of a short conversation with Maas. She is given the space to express her motives and to explain why, in her words, she has left the gray and extinct (part of) the Netherlands and especially her handicapped son, but does not play any other significant role. Perhaps consciously, because we eventually stepped into the complications from Maas’s perspective. But other supporting roles are also limited in their realization. For example, the detective he hires is little more than a cartoonish rendition; a stocky man who, dressed in a long raincoat, talks in staccato sentences and skittishly gazes around him during their discourses.
“Great Kills Road” is not only a search for answers, but also a quest for closure and inner peace. Because of Maas’s physical and – more importantly – mental error, it is slowly becoming clear why his ex-wife returned to New York, but especially what he came here to do himself. And why. The truth that eventually comes to light rests on a variety of moral problems and, in this case, a gray-drawn dividing line between good and bad, which, in addition to the protagonist, also make the viewer think. “Great Kills Road” thus seems, despite its more and less charming (and sometimes positive) flaws, exactly the film that Penning wanted to make. A result which both the director and the modest protagonist are to blame for, and are particularly impressive with.