I’m going to cut straight to the point, Siberia is a colossal waste of time – a cognitive whiplash of nightmarish images with an incoherent story that not even the star power of Willem Dafoe can save it.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise. From the director who gave us Bad Lieutenant and King of New York, Abel Ferrara is known for wild, experimental, and surreal watches. He never makes it easy for his audiences. But even by his standards, Siberia – a story about one man’s trek into the wilderness as he confronts his demons and troubled past – felt like he crossed some cinema threshold. Believe me, it makes The Call of the Wild look like an Oscar-winning masterpiece.
But for comparison sakes, Siberia feels far more cynical, more putrid, more abstract, and manically volatile. You imagine that Ferrara was going through an existential crisis of some sort, spewing out his discombobulating emotions of how he sees the world. But soon enough, it begins to test every strand of patience and resolve you may have.
It starts innocently enough with Dafoe delivering a podcast monologue over the opening credits. The intent is clear; forcing the audience to pay attention, to listen and settle into its false sense of security which proves to be the only calming force this film possesses. After a few scenic shots of the arctic nature, it cuts to the desolation of Dafoe’s Clint, living in an isolated cabin in the middle of nowhere that is a one-stop-shop for drinks and supplies. Through minimalist dialogue that deliberately crosses the language barrier (with no subtitles), he serves the few, random strangers who have made the solemn trek. A man turns up in search of a drink. Another man gambles with the slot machines. Lastly, in diversifying the optics, two women arrive (one old and the other heavily pregnant) for a conversation. Embarking into the trip into the surreal, Clint sets off on a metaphysical journey of self-discovery.
Coming off the back of another London Film Festival favourite in The Lighthouse, Dafoe is no stranger to these experimental arthouse feats. Siberia, the type of film you expect him to relish and challenge himself as an actor, sits on the same plane as Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist – another equally troubling film with the same amount of discomfort throughout. But you quickly come to realise that both Antichrist and Siberia heavily relies on pretentious shock factor and sensory dissonance to propel whatever is fuelling their madness. But in Siberia’s case (to be more specific), it’s a deluge of baffling symbolism and meaningless feats of randomness.
Drenched in style over substance, the problem Siberia finds itself in with its Freudian/Lynchian nightmares of jump scares, experimental camera work and its kaleidoscopic colour palette, is that it doesn’t surmount to anything worthwhile except for questioning your sanity. It wants to be poignant, to feel empathy for the tortured soul of its character while driving home its disjointed thoughts about isolation, mental health, and psychosexual fantasies. But it rarely articulates any of his soulless justifications. And you know you’ve reached the point of no return when the film insists on Dafoe having copious amount sexual conquests with young women half his age – including the heavily pregnant lady from its opening scene.
Trying to find logic to the film’s madness would be a grave mistake. Before you’ve had time to reconcile with whatever you saw, be it, naked dwarves, Clint being mauled by a bear or random acts of violence where naked people are killed by a nameless enemy, it frantically moves onto the next jarring set of images. It trawls backwards through lost memories of daddy issues, a divorced relationship, an absent child, recaptured youth and a mystifying search for black art magic. The characters that Clint interacts with might as well be figments of his psychotic imagination because they’re given no depth. With so little to go on, it is a 90-minute barrage (which felt like a lifetime) of Dafoe’s Clint talking in circular riddles trying to make sense of its plot.
But the truth is, what Ferrara tries to accomplish has already been done before and done better. Dafoe even starred in it, and it was called The Lighthouse! Robert Eggers’ own nightmarish fever dream of cabin fever, severe isolation, and purgatory flirtation with the supernatural conveys so much more as it descends into hell. It helps that Dafoe shares that subsequent madness with Robert Pattison – a comparison on superstitious beliefs and microscopic frustrations in their alpha male, homoerotic relationship. And while it is another film that gravitates towards the style over substance category, it’s acutely aware of its genre-twisting concept, introducing bouts of levity that even the most ardent critic can recommend. Siberia doesn’t do that, masquerading through bouts of ego that questions how it got made.
Bored out of my mind, there is nothing remotely interesting about what Siberia does. It’s only redeeming quality is how Ferrara captures isolation. With a green tint on its cinematography, Siberia is a constant mood board of surrealness, using the naturalistic sounds of its environment to amplify its intent.
But whatever sorcery or black arts this film was searching for, it needs to be sent back to the surreal hell it once came from.
SIBERIA screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2020. UK Cinema release date – TBC.