Film Review – Shit Year
The difficult thing about trailers today is that they often don’t properly represent what a movie is about. That is not the case with Cam Archer’s Shit Year (2010)—what you see is what you get. As I write this review, I’m still trying to digest everything that I got out of it, even though most of it still remains a mystery. If you’re the kind that likes straightforward, narrative films, then you should stop reading now, because this isn’t the type of movie for you. This is a strange, abstract, disjointed project that always feels as though it is at a distance from the viewer. While it is photographed beautifully and has a strong leading performance, the oddness of its construction never allowed me to be fully invested. Try as I might to be engaged, I always felt it stepping away from me instead of meeting halfway.
The plot—from what I can gather—revolves around the actress Colleen West (Ellen Barkin). Colleen is a veteran actress who, with her career on the descent, decides to retire from the profession all together. She escapes out into the hills to be on her own and to live her life out peacefully. Does this premise sound a little familiar to you? It reminded me of Gloria Swanson’s character in Sunset Boulevard (1950), and her drop from movie stardom. There is one glaringly evident difference between the two, however. Where Norma Desmond never truly believed that she was retired and longed to make her big comeback, Colleen’s predicament is self-inflicted. No one ever forced her out of the business, and she even gives a televised interview attempting to explain why she decided to quit. This had me scratching my head a bit. Clearly, acting is Colleen’s passion; it is her calling and is the only thing she knows how to do. If that were the case, why would she ever want to leave it?
That question is never sufficiently answered, and what we are left with is a series of jumbled sequences of Colleen retreating into herself. As she lives out on her own with only her thoughts to keep her company, the loneliness and isolation begin to wear on her psychologically. We see flashes of her in the theater, and her budding romances with fellow actors. Is this what happened to her in the past, or is it a figment of her imagination? There are scenes of Colleen that seem to belong in a science fiction movie. Perhaps they were from a movie she worked on, or maybe she’s just making it all up. Who knows, because the construction of the plot never allows us a proper grounding to catch our bearings. The stream-of-consciousness style tosses us back and forth before we have a chance to understand what is happening. Scenes begin and end quickly, and the jumps between time and place are so arbitrary that I didn’t know how one related to the other. It’s as though they were all tossed up in the air and edited together as they fell.
What exactly is the randomness of the plot supposed to represent? I’m assuming it is a metaphor for Colleen’s state of mind. She is obviously having a problem with letting go and becoming a new person outside of acting. This is all well and good, and in any other movie I would be fine with it. The problem is that Colleen is not all that interesting. Is she self-obsessed, confrontational, and a bit off-kilter? You bet she is, but she is of the flat, boring variety. She spends much of her days lounging around, taking walks, conversing with other people about topics that only she can understand. Her story meanders around endlessly, and for all the problems she seems to be having, it doesn’t seem as though she’s doing much about it, positively or negatively.
There are two strong elements at play. The first is Ellen Barkin. This is a curious casting choice. Barkin gives a quirky, unpredictable performance. Her underlying sexuality can attract while her potentially harsh offensiveness can repel. Her hot and cold contrast enables her character to be something of an enigma; we never quite know what she’s thinking or what she’ll do next. In other words, she was perfect in the role. The other element is the cinematography. Aaron Platt’s camerawork along with Archer’s direction provide for some stunning visual compositions. Their use of black and white sparkles off the screen. In a way, the cinematography is almost too good. Certain shots and stretches of film feel as though they belong in a fashion magazine, with how well-created they are.
If you can find some bit of satisfaction and enlightenment from Shit Year, then I say: more power to you, because I did not. Movies that require work and participation from the viewer are more than welcomed, but not something that is as frustrating and impenetrable as this. As I watched it, I began to think of other filmmakers whose works closely resemble what is happening here. The likes of Bergman and Gordard came to mind. That is a pretty high standard, and as much as I admired the ambition, this came nowhere close to achieving it.
Final Grade: C-