Long Day’s Journey into Night is as disorienting as films come, shifting in and out of the past and present, dreams and reality, with little to help differentiate. There’s a girl and a gun, and that’s all we really need anyway.
This is a film defined by its structure, essentially a film in two distinct acts. This transition is separated by the title drop, which pops up over halfway through the film. The first half is one of restlessness, capturing the atmosphere of tossing in your sleep with dreams that don’t quite connect as your subconscious wildly struggles to fill in the blanks. The Tarkovsky influence is obvious; if you think the similarities to Mirror are mere coincidence, writer/director Bi Gan makes sure to include a sense with interior raining to drive the point home.
Such disorientation can sometimes be more unpleasant than not, and with Bi Gan borrowing so much from slow cinema philosophies, the first act can feel like a chore. But much like Cuaron’s Roma, there’s a purpose to the tedium; Gan is lulling us into a false sense of understanding before flipping into a completely different mode.
It’s the back half of Long Day’s Journey that justifies the whole experience. Like the first, this segment is marked by a distinctly dreamlike atmosphere; but if the first half is defined by a dream you can’t make sense of, the second is marked by growing awareness – yes, this is a dream, but Luo is gaining control.
Bi Gan employs an impressive technical feat to capture this atmosphere. This entire sequence is one enormous long take, traversing from a cave down a mountainside into a remote village, making sure to feature precise actions just to highlight the seeming impossibility of such a daring act. The opening vagueness is replaced with the blunt; it may be difficult to line up how these two halves line up, but the on-screen action in this sequence is more easily digested. If it lacks clear narrative logic, there’s heavy emotional weight.
Like the best surrealist works before it, Long Day’s Journey is a film that demands to be puzzled over; it gives an immediate sense that something has been missed, something that can be etched out with just the right level of care and attention. This is a film that gives back what you are willing to put into it.
This is an admittedly difficult film to review; I’m struggling to wrap my head around what I experienced here. While I’m unsure of certain plot points, I can easily say this film carries an overwhelming atmosphere of great beauty. So many shots carry a resonance even if I can’t fully place what they mean; never before has a title drop left me so shaken.
While it’s easy to emphasize the back half, the first half is similarly lined with mesmerizing moments. The opening shot implies an impossible physical location; a conversation on two sides of a fence is suggested to be at a prison but the background suggests an endlessly open area; a scene as a man cries while eating an apple in full hits with a surprisingly emotional punch. Bi Gan commands a stellar visual language.
Long Day’s Journey into Night is one of those challenging films designed with a very specific audience in mind; but if you belong to that cinematically-inclined group, this is likely to leave quite an impression. By abandoning narrative cohesion, Bi Gan has crafted a film with an evocative, almost mystical atmosphere.
4.5 Stars Out of 5