As the living memory of World War II nears its end, fresh Hollywood treatments of the war also seem to be dying out after seven decades of trying. Saving Private Ryan took the traditional Greatest Generation route; Inglourious Basterds made the conflict into a comic-book revenge fantasy; and it remains to be seen what the Brad Pitt movie Fury (due October 17) does with tank combat. Australian writer/director Aaron Wilson’ s debut feature, Canopy, filmed in Singapore using essentially two actors who barely speak, deserves credit for trying something quietly, radically different with the WWII genre.
After a downed Australian pilot (Khan Chittenden) parachutes into the jungle, terrain controlled by Japanese soldiers, he spends the entire movie on the run—which sounds more dynamic than it is. Mainly he cowers and hides as enemy patrols pass by. He travels by compass bearing, drinks from streams, and never talks to himself in this near-solo survival tale (unlike Sandra Bullock in Gravity, like Robert Redford in All Is Lost). Is such stoic silence a generational thing or forced by the fear of the Japanese overhearing? The difference doesn’t ultimately matter much.
Eventually the pilot stumbles into a Chinese resistance fighter (Mo Tzu-yi) in a comic jungle encounter, which is then followed by a gag that wouldn’t be out of place in a Buster Keaton movie. The two men travel together with no common language, communicating by hand signals and eye contact, which proves surprisingly effective—also in ratcheting up the tension for us, since we have no idea where they’re headed, no sense of the front line or possible avenues of escape.
In a shot Wilson uses more than once, passing aircraft are reflected in jungle puddles, indicating how this handsome blonde flyboy has been reduced to a scuttling, cringing creature of the forest. There’s a kind of primal regression amid this terrible beauty, a surrender to the green indifference of nature—if one may borrow a Herzogian notion, which seems appropriate here. (Anyone else remember Rescue Dawn?) How many days pass isn’t clear, as Canopy becomes a blurred and dreamy projection of the pilot’s frazzled interior state—almost a trance. Snatches of the radio and a few bars of Billie Holiday singing jar us out of the reverie, and gradually we apprehend this whole ordeal may be a flashback.
By turns hypnotic and opaque, Canopy sometimes plays like an extended outtake from a Terrence Malick movie (only without the voiceovers, obviously). Its vague temporality also suggests that for some veterans, the war isn’t over until their final sleep. Opens Fri., Sept. 5 at Sundance Cinemas. Rated PG-13. 84 minutes.