Sometimes a risky experiment that doesn’t work 100% is still a very valuable experience and even more worthy than an enterprise which does work, but takes no chances. Italian filmmakers Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro took quite the chance making Mine, their feature film debut following years collaborating on short films and gaining a reputation as co-writers/directors. In the spirit of Hitchcock’s capricious ventures such as Lifeboat, where all of the action takes place on one small displaced dingy, and Rope, which crafted a “one-take” movie on a single set, Mine’s main conceit is similar in that the lion’s share of the film takes place with one man standing on one spot in the same position for days. The protagonist, played by Armie Hammer, is a marine sniper escaping from an aborted mission in the desert, finding himself in a mine field, having tripped the anti-personnel device, knowing full well that the moment he lifts his left foot, he will be blown to bits. And so he – and the viewer – is literally stuck there.
It’s quite a gamble. How does an audience deal with an actor basically standing still in the same position for 72 hours in the middle of a vast nothingness of sand and brutal sun? The answer lies partially, of course, in some requisite flashbacks and hallucinations (which is fair as staying awake in an oven of an environment doesn’t lend itself well to sanity). But the truly amazing accomplishment for this film is just how much time we don’t spend in those handy film gimmicks and still have a good amount of compelling footage. Watching the marine struggling over his situation, trying to survive, facing natural elements such as sandstorms and wild animals while doing his best to communicate with his home base and remain hopeful is awe-inspiring in that it’s rarely boring. The pacing, visual language and smart editing make good use of a mostly understated but effective performance that keeps viewers watching. The directors do an amazing job of keeping a sort of “slow-motion high-tension” vibe that recalls to some degree Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, without even a truck to drive.
Where the film fails, however, is in the other 30% or so, when people are talking and events imagined in the past occur. There are several ham-fisted moments of Hammer’s character reflecting on a hodge-podge of dramatic clichés which serve to keep him going against impossible odds, as well as help him self-actualize all the great traumas of his life. The usual suspects line up far too predictably: the love of his life who he’s reluctant to marry, a history of violence, an abusive alcoholic father and so on. It’s not only that these character devices are way overused, it’s that the whole way those scenes are handled are as hackneyed as it gets. Even the more interesting and mystical hallucinatory interactions, pregnant with potential, are largely executed clumsily. It’s hard to say if the acting or directing is more to blame – the filmmakers were pressured to hire Hammer – but the results are the same.
In short, when Mine is very quiet, it is really very smart. When it gets noisy, not so much. But those more meditative moments of silence and contemplation really are worth sitting through the flaws of the film. Guaglione and Resinaro are absolutely an exciting new team whose careers I am thrilled to follow from here. And it’s a testament to them both that they chose such a tough assignment for their first feature foray. As for a lot of the almost campy portions, many audiences will probably not mind. In terms of competent Hollywood movies, they hit all their marks professionally and casual filmgoers will likely resonate with the experience. For more discerning cinephiles, there’s plenty to chew on in this thing and a lot to learn from too, cinematically.