Most films feature an instant in which everything abruptly changes for the protagonist(s) — what screenwriting manuals usually call the "inciting incident." Luke Skywalker finds his aunt and uncle murdered; Dorothy gets deposited in Oz via tornado; Mrs. Kramer walks out on Mr. Kramer, leaving him with their little boy; etc. An upheaval. Julia Loktev's magnificent new film The Loneliest Planet, however, may be unique in the way it pivots entirely on a single action lasting only a split second, occurring approximately midway through the narrative and cleaving it raggedly in two. It's not just that The Incident (as we'll call it) happens much later than usual — it also simultaneously alters everything and nothing. What happens doesn't push the story in a new direction. It's never once mentioned by the characters. It could conceivably never have taken place, except that its memory reverberates through every subsequent step.
Oh, right, the steps. Set in the mountains of Georgia — the country, not the state — The Loneliest Planet follows the hiking adventure of a happily engaged couple, Alex (Gael García Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg), who are evidently conducting a whirlwind backpacking tour of Eastern Europe, specifically seeking out the most remote and tourist-free locales. After finding a local guide (Bidzina Gujabidze), they set out for the Caucasus Mountains, and much of the movie's first hour consists of the trio walking.
If you're allergic to deliberately paced travelogues, this may be a deal-breaker for you, though Loktev does a remarkable job of keeping things interesting via precise compositions and offbeat rhythms. Alex and Nica share a playful rapport that tells us volumes about their relationship, and the landscape changes frequently and spectacularly enough to dazzle. What's more, it's clear something momentous lies in wait for these almost absurdly happy people, and the film milks this tension in the manner of the very best horror films.
Unfortunately, nobody can be told what The Incident is. You have to see it for yourself.
It's important to talk around this moment not because it's a spoiler (though it definitely is), but because it's so genuinely unexpected, instantly redefining Alex and Nica's understanding of each other and themselves. (Loktev adapted her script from Tom Bissell's short story "Expensive Trips Nowhere," which was itself reportedly inspired by Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.") Indeed, the first time I saw the movie I briefly thought I must have imagined it. The second time, the audience laughed, nervously, incredulously, as if they couldn't believe it had happened.
The radical change in Alex and Nica's dynamic, however, quickly confirms that it did. In a different location, this rupture would provoke a passionate argument, or find the couple at least temporarily going their separate ways; the film would be forced into a different mode. But it occurs in the middle of nowhere, and the presence of the guide inhibits any real heart-to-heart (not that it's clear what either of them could say, really), and so the three of them just keep walking, slowly, back to civilization, internalizing the repercussions as best they can.
It's in this masterfully tense, almost completely silent pas de deux (plus one) that the film achieves its tremendous power, exploding a bomb underneath the first half's blithe assumptions. Loktev's superb previous film, Day Night Day Night, examined the psyche of a suicide bomber, first by observing her mostly alone in a motel room and then by thrusting her suddenly into the overwhelming chaos of Times Square. Similarly bifurcated, The Loneliest Planet could have been called Together Alone Together Alone. At its heart is the question of how one begins to forgive the unforgivable, whether that means your partner or yourself. See it with someone you think you know inside-out, if you dare, and then wonder.