SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2014
By Don Simpson | January 25, 2014
Director: Tim Sutton
Writer: Tim Sutton
Starring: Willis Earl Beal, Constance Brantley, Larry Dodson, Devonte Hull, Lopaka Thomas
A drifter by nature, Willis (Willis Earl Beal) finds himself stranded in Memphis waiting to fulfill a recording contract. Dressed to the nines but feeling no motivation to write, Wills wanders aimlessly among the streets of dilapidated houses, slowly giving up on his musical abilities.
Early in the film, Willis participates in a church service; refusing to do what he is there to do — sing — he gives a moving speech about his slow and meandering lapse from religion. Some profess that god provided Willis with his musical genius, so his failure to worship could explain his inability to write new songs; others probably suspect that music is the devil’s work, dragging Willis farther and farther away from the church. Either way, Willis is out of place and out of time, a stranger to this world of Southern Baptists in which he finds himself hopelessly trapped.
In Willis’ eyes, Memphis has become a depressingly hellish wasteland, devastated by economic instability. Only the wolf packs of kids are able to find any joy in this urban landscape. The locals can keep on praying, but things are not getting any better for them. Other than the lush oak trees that keep watch over this poor community, god has long forgotten this place. Those very same oak trees serve as a reminder to Willis of the solace and motivation to be found in nature (to paraphrase Willis, there is more glory in fucking dirt than pussy).
Gorgeous young women are hopelessly attracted to him and legendary musicians crave the opportunity to feed off of his musical prestigiousness, but Willis is unable to take full advantage of them. Willis would rather keep his mind perpetually numbed in an alcohol fueled daze in a foolhearted attempt to ward off a rapidly permeating depression.
While there is a central protagonist, Tim Sutton’s Memphis focuses on establishing a profound tone and atmosphere rather than propelling the narrative forward. We experience the surreal qualities of this purgatorial place alongside Willis as he awaits the next stage of his existence. Sutton’s sublimely lyrical entry into the slow cinema cannon, Memphis is a gorgeous example of visual poeticism teamed with an astounding soundtrack that takes the film to another dimension. Sutton is the sorcerer in this equation, conjuring up an unique artificiality that brilliantly captures Willis’ dreamy mindset.