What do you do when the same negligible normality that appears to skim everybody else seems to crush you? Why is it so hard for some to simply exist? It’s alright if you’re struggling for an answer – Polar (2019) does the pondering for you.
Oh yes, I love Rear Window!
Participating in voyeurism is famously like eating an entire chocolate cake – everyone wants to do it, it’s delicious, makes you feel despicable afterwards, and is something I have participated in too many times.
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Watching people from in between the seats on the train or lingering glances around the carousel at baggage reclaim – we seem to be chemically predisposed to spy on each other.
Polar knows this (not the last bit about me, the universal stuff) and astutely weaves the slightly-too-close sense of observation into its fabric.
We open on a long take of our two core characters crossing a park towards the camera, catching up and re-establishing a dynamic that is clearly well-worn and familiar.
Just like chocolate cake, I’m a sucker for a theatrical long-take, as both maker and performer(s) get to stretch their thespian muscles with dialogue and shot framing taking centre stage.
We’re eased into the friendship between Robin (Drew Horner) and Steve (Rotimi Pearce) via smartly specific dialogue that feels exactly like the kind of mildly abusive, affectionate interactions you’re likely to eavesdrop on in public.
“Oh God I feel like I’m really there, it’s horrible.”
This intimate atmosphere doesn’t wane as writer/director Dominic Jackson plunges us straight into intense situations of physical distress and conflict – Robin and Steve head to the pub and get to that scary level of inebriation you see in people hunched over a curb under a streetlight.
The camera stays close as their slack bodies crash over a strangers table and fall into a taxi; you find yourself tensing up from the palpable awkwardness, almost as if to try and compensate for their lolling heads and slurred speech.
Rotimi Pearce gives the stand-out performance for me as brash, enabling friend Steve. Every overly-sensitive person knows a ‘Steve’: someone who can dabble with every kind of extreme behaviour and seemingly come away unscathed, panting and smiling wide-eyed.
It’s sensory. There’s vomiting in sinks, in the street – you can taste the smell of a house no one cleans and of people who don’t care about themselves.
There’s a gorgeous moment where Robin wears one of his borrowed shoes like a glove, holding it against a wall, pressing from the inside, waiting for the glue in the sole to dry. So scrappy and tangible.
It’s when the camera pulls away that you become very aware of the loneliness present – struck by the way that these people are in a troubling state in public and nobody is trying to engage and help.
Every time I have ever swerved a stumbling stranger clutching a can repeated in my mind, and I sunk a little deeper into a creeping sense of guilt.
I might need a disclaimer
There’s a scene of a date in a bar in which Robin chastises his date’s mainstream taste in films and proceeds to list an embarrassingly self-aware avant-garde selection of apparently worthy hidden gems (one of which is literally The Godfather).
At this moment, I had an out of body experience triggered by all the times a mediocre boy has looked me in the face, proclaimed himself to be not only ‘an artist’ but simultaneously ‘a deep thinker’ and then asked me if I’ve ever heard of an underground band called the Arctic Monkeys.
At one point Robin starts a conversation with a relative stranger on the overground train and I almost screamed. No one could get me to happily chat to them on public transport, no matter how mighty their beard and forearm hair.
This brings me to the topic of the film – if you asked me to describe it I might be at a loss.
The film does not feature a linear narrative of set up goals that we watch our protagonist achieve – instead, the lack of purpose and swaying focus of the film and its characters seems to be the point.
The feeling of futility – the closeness and suffocation of mental illness enabled by a lifestyle that seems to delight and stimulate others whilst debilitating yourself – is an essence that the film captures beautifully.
I love to sit in silence, it makes me feel real.
There are moments when the relentless intensity starts to feel monotonous, however.
The film communicates its message best when Robin and his lifestyle are able to be strung up against everyone else’s; when he sits quiet and alone at parties; when he is barely functioning the next morning.
Staring into the face of a drinking buddy who seems physically unphased by the paralytic antics of last night, you see the disparity.
When we stay with him for long periods of time, the close up camerawork and Robin’s troubling behaviour becomes frustratingly numbing and you become a passive, indifferent bystander.
Similarly monotonous is the camera placement – the traditional two-shot that flips between two characters having a conversation is wrung out for all its worth and I found myself yearning for more creative or thoughtful camera work.
In the occasional moments where the script feels most prominent – when the kinesis of the picture is in a lull – it can feel like the film is afraid of silence; to really let moments breathe.
The dialogue can stray into contrived nonchalance because of this – reasonable pauses become stuffed with an overabundance of ‘man’ and ‘bro’.
Silence is frustratingly one of the simplest ways to make a script feel actually real. By absence of providing you allow an audience to come to you: encouraging them to witness the gaps and interpret whatever intangible things fill them.
The Woman Problem
Similarly exasperating are the varying degree of female love interests that pop up throughout – they’re inexplicably giggling, and overly lenient on Robin’s frequent coarseness.
He pines for them in that recognisably self-indulgent (and thus fundamentally self-serving) way, giddily accepts their satiation of his ego, but ultimately rejects them.
Now, I can discern a self-destructive behavioural pattern as quickly as any overly-confident Gen Z-er who did Psychology at A-Level, but it’s important to distinguish that my problem is not with how Robin treats the female characters, but how the film does.
In its depiction of women, the film seems to sit down, rub shoulders and join Robin in his scathing, hurtful perspective; a choice that feels deliberate when the rest of the picture manages to hold the rest of his flawed behaviour at such a perceptibly objective arms length.
Aren’t you lucky I’m religious?
This is mumblecore at its finest. I knew what I was signing up for, and I was not disappointed.
This is also low budget filmmaking (a rumoured purse of £100 buttons up the film’s IMDb with bewilderment) at its very best.
Exhaustively personal camerawork and lighting is partnered with plucky, simple, stripped back music and dialogue that includes lines like “I can’t be contained, like a battery in a chicken farm”.
A meditation on a serious and nuanced subject with a healthy dose of empathy, curiosity and enthusiasm for the craft is exactly what makes independent projects like these so special.
It refreshingly doesn’t attempt to claim it has any final opinions on the questions posed either – it ends on an honestly (albeit sweetly hopeful) unknowing note. It holds its hands up and humbly admits it doesn’t have the answers.
What you’re left with is a film that feels so earnestly raw that it’s easy to give it a lot of grace – forgiveness for its moments of ignorance or awkwardness or naivety is bountiful.
Editor & Artwork: Richard Williams
Images courtesy of Dominic Jackson