It’s always a relief when movie manages to be more than you expect, going in. In the case of The World to Come, it seemed for all the money like an attempt to capture the aesthetic and style of Terrence Malick. A frontier drama and character study, building towards romance? Check. Ethereal narration? Check. Without knowing any better, it would seem easy to assume that this would be a mediocre Malick rip-off. Instead, this title playing at the 2020 Venice Film Festival winds up sneaking up on its audience. A slow burn in the best sense of the word, it easily overcomes the occasional narrative stumble to become something that stays with you long after the credits roll.
The World to Come is jam-packed with solid acting, which pairs well with a haunting score that comes completely out of left field. It’s the performances, as well as the music, that gives this flick its personality. While this could have worn thin by trafficking in territory many an independent work has done before, these choices end up making all of the difference.
Taking place in Upstate New York during the mid-19th century, it’s a rare look at the American East Coast frontier, as opposed to the midwest. Here, a pair of couples, who happen to be neighbors, will deal with the harshness of life in very different ways. Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Dyer (Casey Affleck) are struggling not just with the isolation of the landscape, but the coldness of their world, following the death of their young child. They’re barely getting by and are only hurting more with this bit of tragedy looming large. Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and Finney (Christopher Abbott) are far better off, financially, but their union is similarly strained. So, when Abigail and Tallie strike up a friendship, it’s a boon to them both. Slowly, however, their affection for each other grows.
As they move closer and closer towards a romance, the husbands become skeptical. The way they each handle their suspicion fuels the back end of the film. While Dyer has the ability to stand by his woman and remain hopeful that he can please Abigail, Finney takes a far different path with Tallie, leading to some heartache for all involved.
All four of the performances here are worth taking note of. Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby are best in show, with the former also being the lead, but don’t sleep on Christopher Abbott and Casey Affleck, either. Abbott gets to go big at times, playing what you have to imagine is a fairly common man of the times. Affleck, on the other hand, is as quiet as he’s ever been, truly turning in a calm supporting performance. As good as the gentlemen are, the women shine. Kirby is a spark plug and brightens the film whenever she’s on the screen, while Waterston’s longing and yearning will break your heart.
Filmmaker Mona Fastvold does a really solid job separating her picture from the pack, on a technical level. The cinematography from André Chemetoff is vivid, while the completely unique score by Daniel Blumberg is a true highlight, as mentioned above. Fastvold utilizes Blumberg’s music in a wonderfully interesting way. Unfortunately, she also utilizes the narration that writers Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard inserted into the screenplay. While listening to Waterston’s Abigail comment on what’s going on has a few nice moments, it’s largely useless and leads to too many scenes that rely on the narrator, as opposed to progressing on their own.
The World to Come easily could have been a well-acted bit of navel gazing. Instead, it’s a festival drama that should be able to also translate well to general release, when it does wind up coming out. Aside from the narration, it’s truly well made and one to keep an eye out for. Venice will not be the last time you hear of this one!