The standout scene in director Julia Loktev’s Day Night Day Night finds a nascent terrorist slowly, by rote, learning the details of a fake driver’s license. For three minutes, in one take, her superiors grill her on every aspect of her new ID, each item chosen by random, over and over, until she knows it backwards and forwards—and so, in all likelihood, do we. Finding the intense in the mundane is Loktev’s thing, and The Loneliest Planet, her third, represents a challenge: It’s one thing to trail a kamikaze idling about New York City with explosives, another to try and milk tension from a couple (Gael García Bernal and Israeli actress Hani Furstenberg) traversing the Caucasus in Georgia along with a guide (Bidzina Gujabidze) who seems, honestly, pretty nice.
This relatively mundane trip turns on a mid-film twist, which has been guarded as though this were Psycho or The Crying Game. For what it’s worth, the occurrence in question is relatively minor, at least in that no one gets killed or reveals they have a penis. (Hopefully that doesn’t narrow it down too much.) What interests Loktev, in Planet at least, is a specific, under-explored aspect of human relationships. After a good hour, during which we’ve fully gotten into a groove of watching people hike, someone out of nowhere does something that reveals something terrible about themselves. The second half is just like the first, only now weighed down by this deeply uncomfortable and troubling revelation—the kind of situation you hopefully don’t find familiar.
It’s easy to simply admire Planet’s structure and mounting tension (and the genuinely shocking and sudden way The Incident occurs, which you could almost miss if you were briefly distracted.) Somewhat more prickly is its gender politics. Loktev has said she’s a feminist, if not in the “traditional” sense, and Planet also serves as a caustic look at the state of the modern male. In short, García Bernal’s character proves to be an overly-sensitive weakling, prone to petulant pouting once his true nature is out, while Gujabidze’s is a somewhat wounded man’s man. Neither option, as it turns out, is particularly alluring. Planet is first-rate as a psychological thriller—for once meant in the literal, not figurative sense—but it’s also not off-the-mark as a lament over modern manhood.