At almost precisely the midpoint of The Loneliest Planet, Julia Loktev’s gorgeous meditation on trust, masculinity, and the subtle dynamics of relationships, something happens. It only lasts about three seconds and represents the only major plot point in a film that has no interest in providing any more of them. Spoiling it here would diminish its power and surprise, but suffice to say, this pivotal event completely alters the characters’ understanding of each other and themselves, and turns the entire movie on a dime. There are times in everyone’s life that test their resolve and reveal who they are, and Loktev (Day Night Day Night) focuses with extraordinary acuity on the lead-up to and fallout from one such moment and where it leaves a couple in love.
Based on Tom Bissell’s equally evocative short story “Expensive Trips Nowhere,” The Loneliest Planet follows two young adventurers, Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg, on a fateful trip through the stunning Caucasus Mountain range in Georgia. Bissell’s story had them as a married couple trudging through Kazakhstan, but Loktev discards any such emotional baggage: When they set off on their backpacking tour, Bernal and Furstenberg are utterly compatible and passionate about each other, and merely engaged to be married. Leading them through the uncertain terrain is Bidzina Gujabidze, an amiable but mysterious and troubled guide who has some military background, but like a lot of things about him, the details of his experience are vague. After they spend a day trudging through magnificent scenery—a travelogue-pretty mix of lush hillsides, arid mountain faces, and glistening streams—three men approach. One of them has a gun.
In extending a short story to feature length without embellishing it—at least in the plotting—Loktev suffuses the film with the kind of intimate, microscopic detail and observation that’s more common to literature than cinema. Much of the real story in The Loneliest Planet is told nonverbally, in the physical distance between the characters or the palpable tension that develops between Bernal and Furstenberg when they lose that ease of communication. Loktev builds tension masterfully in the first half, but with small moments of danger and discord that trouble what is otherwise a pleasant outing. And when the thing happens, Gujabidze, a fascinating and sometimes tremendously funny presence, complicates the relationships all the more. Though it heavily reworks Bissell’s story, the film feels as beautifully calibrated as a great piece of short fiction, only with visual accents and emphases filling in for the prose. It’s a relationship movie where the most important exchanges remain unspoken.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit The Loneliest Planet’s Spoiler Space.