The Plains (David Easteal, Australia)

By Chloe Lizotte

In his first feature, The Plains, David Easteal nestles his camera into the backseat of a Hyundai sedan belonging to Andrew (Andrew Rakowski), a lawyer in his late fifties. As he commutes home from a sleepy office park on the outskirts of Melbourne, he whizzes by suburban strip malls and inches through traffic jams, then merges onto the freeway alongside dozens of other drivers. All the while, the camera is aimed toward the windshield, which compartmentalizes the movement of the outside world into the top half of the screen. As The Plains proceeds to collage together fragments from a year of Andrew’s commutes, his car comes to function like a cocoon. At first, the vehicle seals him inside of a comforting routine, but above the drab buildings and roads—and occupying just a ribbon of Easteal’s frame—we see a volatile sliver of the sky, both tempting and threatening, depending on the season. 

The structure of the film is straightforward: Easteal captures 11 of Andrew’s drives in uninterrupted takes from this static, backseat vantage point. The film’s spacious three-hour running time instills the contemplative reverie of a road trip, but this is far from a solitary, silent year of rush-hour drives. Usually, Andrew is on the phone with his family, and half the time he is accompanied by a colleague in his early thirties, David, played by Easteal. (Both men are portraying loosely fictionalized versions of themselves; from here on out, I’ll refer to the characters by their first names, but the “real” people by their last names.) 

Easteal, who holds a day job as a barrister, based The Plains on his real-life friendship with Rakowski, forged while carpooling home from the office. During the year that they worked together, a fixture of Rakowski’s commute was a phone call to his mother’s nursing home, and Easteal has recalled the unexpected, even invasive nature of overhearing these conversations from the passenger seat. Since The Plains depicts Andrew’s delicate navigation of the loss of his mother, it is also a collaboration that required a great deal of trust between Easteal, Rakowski, and Rakowski’s wife Cheri LeCornu, who is featured prominently as a voice on the phone. 

Although the topics for each scene were scripted in advance, The Plains’ conversations veer organically from small talk into an oblique confrontation with mortality. Andrew’s grief prompts him to evaluate the accumulated decisions that have formed his life, and Easteal’s framing puts Andrew’s mundane everyday in tension with these existential concerns. As the sedan moves forward in time and space, its shadowy interior clutters a clear view of any actual advance, while all the viewer can see of Andrew is a blurry silhouette of his back and darting eyes in the rearview mirror. 

The Plains’ visual and narrative defiance in refusing to give the viewer a complete picture of Andrew helps it to subvert the clichés of setting a film in a car, a confined space that quickly sparks a confessional dynamic between strangers. Easteal has mentioned the influence of Abbas Kiarostami, and the way that a film like Taste of Cherry (1997) bypasses conventional backstory while still plumbing intimate, life-or-death depths might throw some of The Plains’ strategies into relief. Andrew and David’s exchanges may hint at the substance of their lives outside the car, but they also capture the dependable beauty of a routine, which is easy to take for granted until it disappears. 

The viewer comes to learn about Andrew’s life the same way that David does, through friendly chatter—a strategy that allows Rakowski more privacy than if Easteal had demanded that he unpack his grief more explicitly. The pair’s earliest conversations display a bit of guarded awkwardness, intrinsic to getting used to the filmmaking process; Andrew simply repeats the phrase “long time, long time” when David asks how long he’s been married, a self-protective half-answer that likely indicates Rakowski’s initial boundaries. Sudden traffic slowdowns give David the space to double back and ask more follow-up questions of Andrew, and vice versa. When Andrew tries to be friendly and ask David about whether he’s partnered, it takes David a couple of false starts to figure out how much he wants to say about a recent breakup. 

With each question about his family, Andrew revisits his major life transitions from a newfound critical distance. He describes how he and Cheri opted not to have children as a philosophical choice: they’ve been together since university, but only decided to marry to secure a her a visa when Andrew moved to California to conduct scientific research. There’s a twinge of a “what if” when Andrew remembers returning home to Australia—a choice he made out of love for Cheri, who was employed in Melbourne and struggling with mental health issues—but he discusses this more as a matter of circumstance. As he encourages David to study for the bar and explore the world, Andrew maintains that he’s comfortable with the low-stakes legal work that he’s doing right now, adding that he’s passed the point where he wants to get “tangled” in things. The idea of “entanglement”—of those roads not taken or abandoned—is a major hypothetical, another element that Andrew seems insulated from when inside of his car. 

As the audience settles into the rhythm of Andrew’s routine, Easteal’s editing choices begin to forcefully rupture its deceptive familiarity. Occasionally, Easteal will jump cut from one commute to the next, which makes David abruptly vanish from the passenger seat; one drive begins on a lightly jarring note when Andrew’s car sits one parking space to the right of his usual spot. All the while, that small slice of sky darkens and lightens above the car; the daylight on Andrew’s horizon is yet another illusive constant. (Although The Plains shares the same backseat framing as James Benning and Bette Gordon’s The United States of America [1975], there’s a similar sense of surrender to nature’s transformations as in Ten Skies [2004].) The equilibrium shifts on one early winter commute, when Andrew drives through darkness rather than late-afternoon sun. Instead of phoning his mother as usual, Andrew receives a call from Cheri, who is visiting family close to Andrew’s mother’s nursing home in Adelaide. We only hear Andrew’s replies, but they sketch the starkest picture yet of his mother’s decline—“Did she remember me?”; “Did she know it was her birthday?”—in between news of a recent panic attack suffered by Cheri’s sister. A few minutes later, Andrew fields a separate call about assets related to the house of his own recently deceased sister. Both conversations limn out the edges of tragedies in clipped logistical fragments, all while Andrew’s car hurtles forward into the night. 

Easteal escapes the Hyundai in a handful of striking drone shots of the Australian desert, where Andrew and Cheri own a 1,000-acre farm located at the halfway point of their drive to Adelaide to visit Andrew’s mother. Easteal’s camera takes the perspective of Andrew’s drone, and it jitters as it climbs upwards into that thus far seemingly unreachable sky. Up here, the plains resemble a distant, arid planet; the machine zooms in jerky circles, and even though it has boundless freedom to move, it lacks a clearcut path. That directionlessness matches Andrew’s discordant emotions: the farm is tinged with the reality of Andrew’s mother’s mortality, the unavoidability of being released into that sky. Andrew shares some of this footage with David on his iPad, along with a video of his mother in her nursing home. Both videos speak to a deeper longing to hold onto something unrecoverable and ephemeral, compressed into a collection of pixels on a handheld device, itself tucked into the bottom left-hand corner of Easteal’s frame.

An attentive viewer of The Plains might notice that, across the street from Andrew’s office, a new building is constructed over the course of a year. Perhaps this fluke of perspective reveals a central preoccupation of the film: the way that life settles into a shape almost in spite of conscious attempts to construct it. And despite Andrew’s reluctance to pursue new entanglements, even the smallest exchanges have an impact on the form his life has taken. Right before he moves on to a new workplace, David shares the Suicide song “Cheree” with Andrew. As they listen to the track’s propulsive synths and anxious vocals, it’s not apparent if Andrew even likes it, nor if it reminds him of Cheri in the way that David hoped it might. What is clear, though, is that he might never have heard this music if it weren’t for this workplace bond, a pleasant surprise of a functional carpool. As much as Andrew clings to routine, his drives find a deeper vitality in variation: the curlicues of a conversation, the way a song crests and fades, the fluctuations of the sky.