The Sensation of Sight

sensationofsightposterstarring David Strathairn, Ian Somerhalder, and Daniel Gillies
written & directed by Aaron J. Wiederspahn
Rated R for some language.

Following the devastation of a personal tragedy, Finn (Strathairn), a mild English teacher, leaves his job and his family and begins peddling a set of encyclopedias door-to-door around town as he struggles to sort things out. “Life has become my second language,” he tells a friend sadly. Along the way he encounters several other broken people, including a single mother and a brooding young man. As the audience slowly learns about the event that led Finn and his various acquaintances to their present condition, he draws closer to the possibility of healing, both for himself and for his fellow sufferers.

The Sensation of Sight is an intense production that quietly commands undivided attention from its opening moments. It begins precisely as the title might lead one to expect, with a beautifully-framed, static shot that is held for about five minutes of near-silence while we take in every single detail of the scene. It is an invitation to the audience to exercise its own sensation of sight, in preparation for what is to follow. What is going on here? What are we meant to see? These questions are eventually answered, but as the characters reveal themselves these simple queries are replaced by much bigger questions about suffering and loss. These are difficult questions, and it is to this movie’s credit that it explores them without trying to supply them with easy answers.

Although the main story ostensibly revolve around Finn’s quest for meaning, the filmmakers clearly understand that in real life, every minor character in one story has a central role in another. In this case, that translates into several subplots populated by a wide variety of characters whose importance to Finn’s journey at any given moment is incidental to our interest in their personal stories. Certainly, everything comes together in the end, but organically and naturally, rather than in a neat or contrived way.

All of these “secondary” characters are hurting and isolated within their small pockets of grief, unable to really connect with the larger world and even seemingly unaware of each other. The performers who bring all of these characters to life are amazing here. Strathairn in particular has created (or perhaps I should say “inhabited”) an iconic character (with his eccentric outfit and mannerisms, and his little red wagon loaded with encyclopedias) who is somehow still a bit of an Everyman; a person who is flawed and broken but still searching for answers. Really, though, it is only his prominent role that leads me to single his work out from that of, for instance, Jane Adams or Scott Wilson: low-profile actors who do excellent work and are always a pleasure to watch.

There is a very strong unity of purpose powering this story. That sounds like an obvious sort of thing to say about a film, but in actual practice it is rare enough to be worthy of comment. The writing is firm and focused. The performances are nuanced and spot-on. The camera-work is simultaneously full of ethereal beauty and a concrete connection to place that is completely immersive. This internal harmony is key to the movie’s spiritual dimension, which is pervasive but not overt. I am hesitant to delve too deeply into this aspect of the film, despite my great appreciation of it, because it is so intimately connected with important second- and third-act plot revelations. Suffice to say that the film’s examination of sorrow, loss, and the search for answers should prove rewarding for any discerning viewer, whether or not they have ever experienced such pain themselves.

The Sensation of Sight is the sort of film that demands to be seen more than once; not because it didn’t make sense the first time, but because the experience becomes even richer and more meaningful with each successive viewing. Most movies diminish considerably with repeated viewings, and it is always a great pleasure to discover a film with the opposite quality.

~ by Jared on December 16, 2008.

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