The Plains: a three-hour docudrama set almost entirely in a car proves quietly radical

Viewers rarely see beyond the windscreen of a car in David Easteal’s experimental debut, which follows an Australian legal-worker as he drives home from work each day, but its repetition accumulates into something quite profound.

The Plains (2022)
The Plains (2022)

David Easteal’s extraordinary debut feature puts us in the backseat of a middle-aged Australian legal worker’s car as he drives home from the office each day. From a fixed position between the driver and passenger seats, the camera observes a journey that, through repetition, becomes familiar to us: Andrew gets into his car and drives off down a suburban road before joining the busy freeway. Most days, en route, he’ll call his wife, Cheri, to let her know he’s set off, and also his mum, who has dementia. On some days, he gives a lift to a younger colleague, David (played by Easteal himself); otherwise, he’ll listen to talk radio. 

The Plains was filmed over the course of a year, recording Andrew’s evening commutes in unbroken takes that paradoxically emphasise both the sameness and the difference of these journeys. No less than the clock radio flicking around to 6am each repeated morning in Groundhog Day (1993), the sound of the power-lock mechanism unlocking before Andrew gets into his air-conditioned car at the start of each trip becomes an aural marker of a cyclical routine. But there’s something subtler at play in Easteal’s film than a critique of white-collar drudgery.

A number of screens concentrate our gaze in The Plains. There’s the car windscreen, that widescreen view through which we see the passing world: other cars, roadsides, the liminal spaces of arterial Melbourne. Each journey begins sometime after 5pm, and among many other things The Plains is a documentary about the way the daylight dims at different times of the year, as Andrew’s car drives on through the gathering twilight. Our barometer for tracking these changes is the dashboard clock, another screen that draws the eye. Then there’s the rearview mirror, which – excepting a moment near the end of the film – gives us our only glimpses of Andrew’s face. Aside from this, we get to know him only through his chatty conversation: The Plains is a work of intimate portraiture told without us properly seeing its subject.

The film’s minimal set-up superficially resembles Locke (2013), Steven Knight’s car-bound drama in which Tom Hardy, in full view of the camera, holds down a succession of speakerphone conversations as he drives from Birmingham to London. But Locke’s melodramatic plot mechanics and more restless visual vocabulary gave Knight’s film the air of a high-concept radio play consciously opened up for the screen. In its formal rigour and emphasis on duration and the accretion of detail, Easteal’s project is more in lane with the structuralist avant-garde of Michael Snow and James Benning – perhaps most especially the latter’s 1975 film The United States of America, made in collaboration with Bette Gordon and tracking Vietnam-era America through the windscreen of two travellers making a cross-country drive. Straub-Huillet’s History Lessons (1972), with its lengthy windscreen odyssey through modern Rome, could be another reference point, not to mention Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), with its concentration on daily routine and the infinitesimal deviations from it that can reveal volumes about a character.

The Plains derives much of its fascination from the ambiguous line it treads between documentary and drama. Easteal is a practising barrister, Andrew one of his former colleagues, but though it’s impossible to tell from the film, their naturalistic dialogues were in fact mainly scripted, and the life events that enter into the conversation are a mix of reality, reconstruction and fabrication.

Through Andrew’s talkative patter, fragmentary details of a life emerge as vivid off-screen space: friction with his boss, his parents’ lives as Polish émigrés, his attitude to having children, his relationship with Cheri, the second home they keep in a remote part of Victoria (which we see in snippets of drone home-movie footage that make for disorientingly surreal interludes between some of the commutes). Over three hours, we get the measure of a man and grow familiar with the genial flow of his speech – his tics, intonation and midlife philosophising.

The dialogue between Andrew and David evolves from colleague-to-colleague awkwardness to a warmer rapport, and when, on the later drives, we learn that David is leaving his job to pursue a legal course, or that the health of Andrew’s mother has rapidly deteriorated, such shifts hit us like Jeanne Dielman forgetting to turn a light off. Life has jumped on in the splice between two shots, and what had seemed, for all its onward movement, to be a film about stasis reveals its larger theme as impermanence.

► The Plains will be available to stream on MUBI from April 12.