With its creaky floors, ghostly winds and faces fractured by hard times, Black Canaries has all the ragged truth of a folk song. It’s a vivid picture of Americana, scored to a harmonica that sounds like it’s bouncing off the walls of a jail cell. This isn’t a rose-tinted retrospective of simpler times—if there ever was such a thing—but a eulogy for a way of life.
The plot is somewhat ethereal; it exists purely as a vague outline. A coal miner and his family live on an isolated prairie, far from civilization. The father is a coal miner, as was his father before him, and his two sons are expected to close the loop, even though one is blind and the other is beginning to question his place in the brutal cycle. The grandfather is still alive, but the years of strenuous work are catching up to him quick. For fun, the family plays music and eats dinner. Every once in a while, they gather for a family photograph, which includes the latest casualty propped up in a casket. The characters are mostly silent, except for the muddled, time-worn voiceover, which provides some narrative texturing (when you can understand what he’s saying).
“…romanticizes a time and place without forsaking its grim realities.”
The movie treats its subject with care and, while my knowledge of coal mining doesn’t go past Bob Dylan dirges, there seems to be a respect for authenticity. Authenticity doesn’t necessarily result in art, but in this movie’s case, it’s tantamount to creating the forlorn tone, which hangs over the movie like a thick fog. It’s mostly the small things that make a difference, like the strange doors that open so the coal can reach the train engine or the black impression left on the bed from being covered in dirt. This aim for authenticity extends to the decision to capture the film on scratchy 35mm, which is no gimmick, but a thematically appropriate lens through which to tell this story.
Even though there’s almost no dialogue and there’s not a traditional structure, the director, Jesse Kreitzer, does an excellent job of telling his story. By the time the final frame cuts to black, there’s a feeling of clarity and satisfaction, despite the film being primarily composed of silent and obscure images. It’s an impressive example of guiding the audience to a specific location without ever making full contact, so to speak.
Like a slightly out of tune folk song belted out by a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, freight hopping hobo, Black Canaries romanticizes a time and place without forsaking its grim realities. Its abstract story structure and unkempt appearance might initially seem off-putting but wipe away the dirt and you find a story that’s been told many times over, but rarely with this much consideration.
Black Canaries (2016) Directed by Jesse Kreitzer. Written by Jesse Kreitzer. Starring Patrick Towne, Ananka Kahlmeyer, Andrew Stewart, John Connet, River Quinn, Peter Taft, Lawrence Steuer.
8 out of 10