By Pete Vonder Haar | March 15, 2007

2007 SXSW NARRATIVE COMPETITION FEATURE! Ryan Eslinger’s first film, “Madness and Genius,” caused a fair amount of festival buzz in its 2003 debut. However that movie’s B/W sensibility and relatively unknown cast kept it from gaining wider notice. Eslinger’s latest, “When A Man Falls in the Forest,” shows much the same confident direction but adds lush visuals and strong lead performances that may raise the filmmaker’s profile a few notches.

“When A Man Falls in the Forest” drops us in the middles of three men’s lives. Gary (Timothy Hutton) is a burned out architect facing the growing reality of his dying marriage to Karen (Sharon Stone), who is, in turn, angry with Gary for not finding her attractive anymore. Gary starts working later and later hours and comforting himself with booze and pills, while Karen takes to other…more larcenous activities.

In an oblique attempt at redemption, Gary reaches out to Bill (Dylan Baker), the night janitor at his office. As it turns out, Bill is an old high school classmate of Gary’s, though one Gary and his friends picked on. It’s easy to see why: Bill is both agoraphobic and painfully shy, wearing headphones to avoid human contact and refusing even to indirectly intercede in the increasingly violence domestic disturbances taking place next door.

The third in this damaged triumvirate is Travis (Pruitt Taylor Vince), an old friend of Gary’s who’s lost touch with his friend thanks to a tragic accident that occurred four years earlier. The nature of the accident isn’t divulged until film’s end, but it obviously caused tension between the two.

While Gary and Travis renew their friendship and Gary makes a last desperate bid to save his marriage, Bill happens upon an instructional tape for “lucid dreaming.” Perhaps now he’ll finally find a way to be someone he’s never been.

“When A Man Falls in the Forest” is a strange little film. Eslinger is quite adept at milking uncomfortable situations for comedy, even while the movie’s languid pace and muted colors lend sobriety to the proceedings. It’s not a film for everyone, and I can’t say I was too fond of the ending, but those willing to give it a little effort should find it rewarding.

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