Most procedurals begin with a body, but few stay with it. There are exceptions—the Twin Peaks pilot lingers, as waves of grief and suspicion envelop its idyllic setting—but the body is usually just a jumping-off point, picked over for questions the story will then set about answering. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, from supremely gifted Turkish writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Distant, Climates), never gets past the body—in fact, the search for it takes longer than some movies last. The epic-length drawing-out of such a basic component of the police procedural might sound agonizing, but it gives the search and its aftermath tremendous dramatic weight for the men on the hunt. The body means different things for each of them, and Ceylan’s mesmerizing existential drama takes its time establishing the players and bringing their inner lives into focus. It’s cinema as autopsy.
The exceptionally beautiful first half follows a three-car caravan through the winding hills and roads of the Anatolian steppe in the dead of night, as two confessed killers try to remember where they buried the body. Joining them on the search are various professionals, including an amusingly irascible detective (Yilmaz Erdogan), the prosecutor (Taner Birsel), the doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) assigned to the autopsy, two diggers, and other policemen and drivers. After the long night—a stretch broken up by a lovely sequence where the men break bread with local villagers—finally yields a result, the film shifts to the daytime and takes a more narrow interest in Uzuner, particularly his relationship with Birsel, who tells him a dark anecdote early on that pays profound dividends later.
Long blessed with one of the best eyes on the international scene, Ceylan shoots most of the nighttime exteriors through the beams cast off by three pairs of headlights, which give the landscape a haunted quality that sets the tone. (Every turn brings the same carved hills, valleys, and ditches, in a mordant joke Ceylan does well to exploit.) When night turns to day, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia inevitably loses some of its mystique, but Ceylan wends his way toward a couple of devastating revelations that question the value of knowing the truth. For a murder procedural, a genre that ends with cases closed, that counts as heresy.