FilmSpace: Columbus

Film critic Scott Wilson reviews Columbus, 2018’s film to beat, if you can find it. 

Columbus – ★★★★★

Columbus is the best film of 2018. You might not have heard of it among the Venoms and the A Star is Borns. You might not even have a cinema within a hundred miles of you showing it. But it is the film that – since seeing it in February as part of the Glasgow Film Festival – I want to share with people more than any other.

Now on general release, if not exactly wide-release, it is the kind of film that rewards those who walk towards it, since it’s not going to do the work for you. Set in Columbus, Indiana, the Mecca of architectural modernism, it follows Casey and Jin as they wander around the city.

Casey is young and educated, but stuck. Her mother is a recovering addict for whom she feels responsible. She works in the local library, while compiling notes on her love of Columbus’s buildings. Jin is just visiting, his father is in hospital and he feels obligated to be nearby. They’re not close, and his father’s job as an architect has left Jin cold on the subject, if not uninformed.

The city itself – the third character in what is mostly a two-hander – is shot beautifully by cinematographer Elisha Christian. The buildings, serving as narrative punctuation marks, are given life by the way both the film and Casey look at them. The notes she takes are factual and historical, academic in a way the film could have ended up due its technical proficiency, but is ultimately anything but.

It gets to the heart of why art matters, by differentiating between what it is and how it’s received, and in turn passing that reaction on to someone else. In the interpretation is something personal, making way for intimacy between the speaker and listener.

It’s all down to Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho. Plotless in the vein of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, what happens is not as important as who it happens with. Richardson is half Cho’s age (don’t worry), a detail their connection is founded upon. She looks at him with the respect demanded of an elder, but all the while recognising his imperfections. His experience and freedom are enviable, even though it seems to have come with a loneliness Cho shows through Jin’s eyes. At a turbulent point in anyone’s life, he needs comfort to make sense of what could happen to his father, and in Casey there’s someone who understands and remains unjaded. It’s like Lost in Translation, without the moral ambiguity and cultural othering.

Despite the lush greens of the city, it’s an autumnal and ambient film. Like the change of seasons, endings bring new beginnings, and the same can be said for how Jin and Casey come to realisations over the course of the film. It helps that post-rock band Hammock composed the score, their delicate textures sounding like raindrops on a still lake. What is happening between the protagonists is loud for them, but quiet in a city filled with imposing works of art that tower over those who live there. They are a tiny disruption among an immobile modernist canvas.

Those buildings bridge the gap between objectivity and personal connection. Everyone sees the same thing – we all watch the same film – yet we all feel different responses. Jin doesn’t want to hear Casey’s prepared lectures about any of Columbus’s buildings. He knows enough from his dad, plus it’s impersonal. When prompted for a little more, she says, “I’m also moved by it.” It gets to the heart of why art matters, by differentiating between what it is and how it’s received, and in turn passing that reaction on to someone else. In the interpretation is something personal, making way for intimacy between the speaker and listener.

READ MORE FROM FILMSPACE – A Star is Born

It might be a little too pensive to have broad appeal, but for those willing to walk with Jin and Casey then nothing else released in 2018 comes close to the heart and humanity Columbus has. It strips away the noise and leaves just two people and what surrounds them, giving them permission to talk about what matters. Through confiding they experience something rare, a kind of judgement-free connection where they can be vulnerable and honest.

This week, Netflix will release Paul Greengrass’s 22 July about the 2011 Norway terrorist attack. Simultaneously, it will appear on the video on demand service and screen in cinemas. Without this deal, it may have been confined to arthouse cinemas. Greengrass hopes his story reflects a modern world unequipped to deal with extremism, which he thinks should be seen by as many people as possible. With Netflix not going anywhere and now a major part of our film consumption, this multi-platform release needs to be welcomed and celebrated because of films like 22 July and Columbus.

It is my hope that strong word of mouth means Columbus finds its audience. But it might not among the multiplex-dominating blockbusters: Venom took over $200m before the weekend was over. More than it needing to be seen in the cinema, it needs to be seen in general, and so we have come to a point where masterpieces are in danger of being overlooked yet have a lifeline in on demand services. One way or another, no matter how you see it, you need to see Columbus. I was moved by it.