What do you get when you take Willem Dafoe and plug him into a Siberian nightmare? You get director Abel Ferrara’s latest hallucinogenic experience “Siberia.” In his sixth collaboration with Dafoe, the accomplished director has crafted a film that is not defined by a simple explanation. The story follows an American bartender named Clint (we never learn his full name) as he travels on a hallucinogenic night terror in the Siberian mountains. That is definitely a slim reading but is admittedly the clearest definition you’ll get of this film. In my time as a critic, the terminology “style over substance” is something I had always found fascinating. How can a director make a compelling story, when the one that’s there is non-existent? In Ferrara’s case, he makes something that isn’t without its flaws, but is incredibly unique and original. That wouldn’t be possible without a lead actor like Dafoe.
While many of us may know him as “The Green Goblin” from Spider-Man, Dafoe is like a chameleon. In each of his roles, he disappears into a character or world that’s mysterious. In the case of this film, one that is so mystifying it can be hard to connect to as a viewer. The connection comes from how this man is drifting to find purpose in a life that he can’t understand. We never necessarily hear what he’s thinking, but we know he comes from trauma. In nightmarish interactions with his father (also played by Dafoe) and other nameless women, he’s trying to find a purpose. Dafoe makes that a compelling journey to watch, even when we don’t get the necessary answers behind his actions. Though we know nothing about him, we feel like we’re going through this journey with him.
It is Ferrara behind the camera that really utilizes his weirdness to make the oddities come to fruition. There are certain narrative choices here that are so strange and off-putting that I was impressed by the gaul of Ferrara’s attempt. Now, I will say that these elements are ideas that will not work with a mainstream audience. There are uses of body language and narrative decisions as to how Dafoe reacts to things that will make you scratch your head. On multiple occasions I may have let out some audible responses varying from, “What?” to “This is ridiculous.” In each of these instances, I could not help but admire the willingness to try and tackle some very weighty themes. In saying this, I want to again mention that not all of this works.
Some of the narrative choices, particularly in the final act, felt so strange to me and it completely took me out of the film. A particular sequence involving a break in and possible “murder” was so brutal that I had to look away. Another involving extreme violence even made me squirm past the point of enjoyment. You can see what Ferrara is going for, but it comes off as nothing more than overly provocative. It’s frustrating since the ambition is so amply on display.
“Siberia” is a perfect example of a sub-genre in film known as the “arthouse movie.” Arthouse movies are those that break the narrative conventions of the typical film and deconstruct the characters. Sometimes, that can be a real turn off since it makes an audience become disconnected. I don’t think you will necessarily want to turn off the film here, but it will certainly give you a classic “I have no idea what’s happening” moment. The point is, this is either a film that is going to work for you, or not. There is nothing that can be said to convince you, but if you know what you’re getting into, you won’t be disappointed.