Red Desert
By Adam Nayman

The Outwaters
Dir. Robbie Banfitch, U.S., Cinedigm

Usually it takes at least three films to justify a trend piece. But last weekend, The New York Times jumped headlong (and maybe prematurely) into the breach by having Kyle Edward Ball and Robbie Banfitch—the writer-directors, respectively, of the festival-hyped, microbudget horror movies Skinamarink and The Outwaters—interview one another. The idea was that these two thirty-something, first-time filmmakers, who came of age as cinephiles in the 1990s (Ball in Edmonton, Alberta, and Banfitch in suburban New Jersey), could more effectively discuss and appreciate each other’s work without an interlocutor; more specifically, writer Erik Piepenburg was hoping his subjects would compare notes on what he called their “defiantly experimental” techniques.

“Experimental film” is a term that tends to be thrown around willy-nilly by non-academic journalists and critics; to recall that old Supreme Court verdict about pornography, most people don’t know it when they see it. That Ball explicitly cites both Stan Brakhage and Maya Deren as influences in the Times piece hints at his allegiances (and video-store education) without necessarily cinching the case for a new horror avant-garde. But arguing terminology is ultimately a mug’s game: it might be better to say that at a moment when genre has become gentrified at both the middle and higher levels by cleanly stylized—i.e. Kubrickian—framing and lighting, any newcomers with (literally or figuratively) asymmetrical aesthetics will seem like outliers, if not outright innovators.

Certainly, both movies have talent—and visual ideas—to burn. With its low-angled, not-quite subjective camcorder imagery (no “elevated” horror here), Skinamarink patiently repudiates master-shot omniscience in favor of haptic abstraction—static, impassive swaths of negative space suffused with what Reverse Shot’s Natalie Marin aptly terms a “permeating melancholy.” The Outwaters, meanwhile, opts for extended, expository passages of first-person realism before shoving its characters (and their camera) into their own private Twilight Zone; the last 45 minutes envision something between a vision quest and atrocity exhibition, reconfiguring the post–Cannibal Holocaust convention of conscious-slash-“embodied” cinematography into a kind of existential torture test.

As tantalizing as these descriptions may sound—and as effectively creepy as both movies are at their best—it would be a stretch to say that Ball and Banfitch have truly found their way around conventions. On the contrary: Skinamarink’s dingy, underlit haunted house and The Outwaters’ cracked, desolate stretch of New Mexico desert are spaces whose enduring, universal familiarity as potential horror-movie backdrops is essential to roping in viewers—all the better to mess with their expectations. Not that these movies are playful, exactly: the same aversion to cynically pious pietàs that differentiates Skinamarink and The Outwaters from the A24 cohort also extends to the self-reflexive, release-valve humor of goofy thrillers like Barbarian or Smile. Instead of trying to choose between intensity and irony (or trying to have it both ways), Ball and Banfitch opt out: the question is whether these studied avoidances—of traditionally powerful, potent imagery; of sturdy, recognizable narrative structures; of leavening or cathartic comedy—lead anywhere profound, or if the value of these films (and their small-e-experimentalism) lies simply in choosing and navigating the paths less traveled.

The characters in The Outwaters are on the road to fame and fortune—or at least the mandatory, quixotic shot at the big time expected of even the most marginally talented Los Angelenos. Robbie (played by Banfitch) is an aspiring music video director hoping to record a promo-clip for curly-blonde folkie Michelle (Michelle May), who’s got a small, lovely voice; as the film begins, he’s roped in his brother Scott (Scott Schamell) and best pal Ange (Angela Basolis) as an ad hoc crew. The Blair Witch Project vibes couldn’t be more obvious, but where that film worked as a cautionary tale about city kids messing around in the Old Weird America—a spiritual sequel of sorts to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)—there’s no suggestion here of characters being punished for their rubbernecking curiosity, or even callow, generational disrespect (as in Ti West’s X, with its hardcore hustlers choosing the wrong octogenarians at which to flaunt their hot, young bods). Robbie and co. aren’t symbols of anything, and nor do they have anything coming to them—which makes the ruthless cruelty of the film’s follow-through all the more startling.

The conceit that the footage in The Outwaters has been gleaned from three long-discarded memory cards (the digital dateline reads 2017) establishes a set of structural boundaries that Banfitch honors while still confounding our spectatorial rhythms. Without giving too much away, it takes longer than you’d expect for The Outwaters to kick into gear: by the middle of the second video card, with the group members several days into an excursion punctuated by a few spooky sounds and half-remembered nightmares—but no real evidence of the uncanny—it’s possible to think that the filmmakers are simply goldbricking their way through a set-up we’ve seen a thousand times. Beautiful, lunar landscapes, sure, although there’s only so much interest that can be worked up in the grist before you get to the mill. But the turn, when it comes, is decisive, and what follows is a stretch of deceptively (and then definitively) bravura filmmaking that manages to feel simultaneously like it’s happening at breakneck speed and dragging on endlessly—an exercise in momentum without a vanishing point.

Advance reviews have pegged aspects of The Outwaters’ iconography as being consistent with “cosmic horror,” a catch-all phrase mostly meant to evoke the works of H. P. Lovecraft. While not totally off-base, a better reference point might be Algernon Blackwood’s 1907 short story “The Willows” (a tale beloved by Lovecraft) about a canoe trip that drifts through some paranormal corridor. A ghost story specialist whose chilling fable “The Wendigo” was a major influence on Larry Fessenden, Blackwood’s principal interest was instilling a sense of awe—what he called “the speculative and imaginative treatment of possibilities outside our normal range of consciousness.” Banfitch doesn’t have Blackwood’s poetic touch, but he’s similarly gifted at imbuing nature itself with barely suppressed menace.

If it seems like I’m talking around what actually happens in The Outwaters, it’s only partially for fear of spoilers: some of Banfitch’s images are so potent (and horrifying) that they’d probably hit just as hard even if you saw them coming. It’s more that trying to explain what happens, plot-wise, is futile, because the film has been constructed in a way that puts the dual onuses of perception and interpretation onto the audience. It’s a heavy burden that’s also hard to process when you’re being slammed around so forcefully. If Skinamarink excels at weaponizing stasis—at pressurizing down time until the lack of action in the frame becomes cause for alarm—The Outwaters does the same thing with visibility: in the most harrowing set piece, Robbie aims his camera at an entire valley’s worth of inky, starless black and illuminates his field of vision one small, sputtering flashlight beam at a time. (The sound design in these passages is diabolically layered and expansive; it creates a kind of immersive, three-dimensional sonic architecture that has our ears playing tricks on our eyes.)

The hell of The Outwaters’ style—and the notion of “Hell,” or someone’s bleaker-than-bleak imagination thereof, is apropos here—lies in how sustained it is, which might place the film in the dubious category of endurance-test cinema. A couple of late shots even tread into Gaspar Noé-ish provocation, and it should be said that these are probably the least convincing moments in the film, not because of a failure of execution (or nerve) but because it’s the first time that we really catch the director in any sadomasochistic preening. There’s a pretty good embedded joke in here about an amateur auteur accidentally stumbling into an all-time feature debut, and in the same way that Skinamarink’s scattered narrative clues will duly yield Reddit-thread “explainers” about its contents, there’s a potential reading of The Outwaters as an allegory for the loneliness and terror of filmmaking itself. Hopefully, even as his film hits streaming and his star rises, Banfitch is smart enough to keep schtum and let The Outwaters’ eloquent, shrieking incomprehensibility speak for itself.