By Christopher Renton
Any committed professional wants their achievements compared against all others in their field, not simply those with the same physical attributes–ask any black politician or white running back. Unfortunately, there is still a certain amount of exoticism surrounding female filmmakers, their gender functioning as some sort of delightful asterisk. I can only assume from her film that Chicago local Kris Swanberg wishes to be taken seriously as a filmmaker, sans gender denotation. She should be.
Empire Builder is the story of a young woman, a mother, a wife. She is quiet and unassuming and capable. She nurtures her toddler, provides for him, neglects him. Life happens to certain people. They do not affect change, but are instead propelled by the whims of others and allow their circumstances to dictate necessary action. Jenny (Kate Lyn Sheil) does not appear to have chosen stay-at-home motherhood, but rather accepted it. She is apathetic and distant from her urbane, assertive husband (Joe Swanberg) who appears perfectly comfortable with their young married life, oblivious to her despondency. We meet her as she is preparing to leave Chicago with her child for a week of solitude in the mountains of Montana. There she takes up residence in a ramshackle cabin and after a few days of quiet independence falls into a casual affair with the terse handyman (Bill Ross). Swanberg’s script telegraphs her attraction to him, but intelligently elides the pivotal moment of infidelity. The two quickly settle into a laconic, frontier relationship–Jenny accepting the yokes of ad hoc wife and mother without argument. The film is paced by this domesticity and reaches for meaning only in the closing moments when Jenny is forced to decide what she wants instead of what she is willing to accept.
Unsurprisingly, a mention of Kris Swanberg is usually followed quickly by one of her prolific filmmaker husband Joe, the same Joe Swanberg playing the husband in this film. She is not only woman, but wife you see. The early sequences in Chicago seem beholden to a mumblecore aesthetic that mimics her husband’s pleasantly indelicate way of dealing with modernity–talking about our feelings instead of expressing them epigrammatically. It isn’t until Jenny leaves Chicago that we begin to identify the struggle of the lead character and, perhaps, the filmmaker herself. On her own in the mountains Jenny is given the opportunity to be her own woman. I was reminded of Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy–the story of a liberated woman’s struggle to care for her dog while also retaining her independence. In both films these women remain nurturing while trying to sort themselves out. The scenes in Montana are mostly dialogue-free and documentary style. It’s there that we feel the filmmaker finding a voice all her own. By avoiding conventional story arcs and allowing her scenes to unfold naturally, Swanberg presents us with a thought piece. Not as stylistically consistent or emotionally jarring as Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, this film speaks a similar language regarding the relationship of domesticity and gender roles. Perhaps, by comparing Swanberg to these female filmmakers, I am falling into a trap I had hoped to avoid. But this film is, undoubtedly, about a woman’s ability to square all of her roles into a unified idea of femininity. What does it mean to be a young woman, a mother, a wife? Can a woman find power in those roles and, if so, how?
Swanberg does not offer answers to these questions and her ellipsis of an ending tells us that she might not have any. In her own life she is a mother, a wife, a female filmmaker and, more than likely, this film speaks to an existential confusion.
There’s a certain bravery in committing that bewilderment to film. Swanberg has a distinct perspective and a visual grace that anyone reading this should encourage with a ticket purchase. Empire Builder is her second feature film and we hope not her last.