Movie Review: "States" (2019)
Bear with me, y’all- I’m in a weird place right now. You see, I’m not your average cinephile. I do want to be entertained. I want that escape from reality. Sometimes I prefer some truly mindless popcorn fluff. Sometimes I want to think deeply. Every so often, I like to sit there with an uncomfortable hard-on and question what a film is doing to me. The point is that I immerse myself in the experience, for better or worse.
And I’m supremely confused right now on what I just watched and even how I feel about it. Let’s see if we can work it out, you and I…
States is described thus: “A transient road film featuring an array of young drifters wandering throughout the U.S. with varying degrees of purpose, or lack-thereof , "States" is a multifaceted meditation on freedom - via Twain, Kerouac, Altman, Linklater... - and an outsider's love letter to America and the searchers of its endless highways.”
I have to take writer/director Zach Gayne at his word on the IMDB description. States is all of those things and then some. It’s real life juxtaposed onto the criminally absurd, a fever dream of the known and strange dancing deliriously. It’s nearly the degradation of The American Dream, showing how tough that particular Holy Grail truly is, for only in seeing it slowly rot can you see what it could (should?) be.
States is also a heavily improvised film with no solid narrative thread to follow for the sake of simple cohesion. The stories do sometimes intertwine, after all. There’s The Man From Michigan (Michael Wieck), who wakes up butt-naked in a Mexican border town with the goal of getting back to the USA and then figuring out the rest as he goes. You can keep up with Grace Genet, an aspiring actress who cons an Uber into taking her to Las Vegas to “research a part”. Her Uber driver is Frankie Hart (Robbie Bruens), who will encounter a series of events with various passengers that are almost on a “see it to believe it” level. Then there’s the sensitive gay poet, Simon (Jeremy O. Harris; The Amateur), who’s trekking to Salt Lake for a poetry reading that’ll be his big break. The two religious nuts who pick him up will challenge his beliefs and drug tolerance. I’m not even going to start in on the chick looking for aliens in Roswell.
On the one hand, it’s a dithering mess that needs some connective tissue to give it the power of the sum of its parts. However, it’s also bizarrely hypnotizing in a way that I haven’t seen since the criminally underrated 1997 classic, Chicago Cab. That’s the vibe that I got from States. In many ways, it’s a movie that defies common description; bear in mind that’s coming from a dude who reveled in the Salvador Dali-esque insanity of Gabriel Bartalos’ Saint Bernard!
So, did States accomplish what it set out to do with that rather pretentious IMDB synopsis? The answer is an unequivocal YES. If you take States on the basis of being a statement about the freedom that makes America so special and makes the very human condition so unique, then you’ll find a hidden gem. If you’re taking States with any kind of conventional thought process, you’re going to be awfully frustrated and confused.
The ending is sublime, a thing of haunting beauty in microcosm. The tale of the poet, Simon, is easily the strongest of the bunch…though that disgustingly manipulative Uber ride to Vegas is pretty heady stuff, too. All in all, there’s a student film style that works in the favor of the format.
States is the textbook definition of a hot mess. The cool part is that you can’t have the negative connotation of the mess without the undoubtedly positive connotation of it being hot in the first place. By God, Zach Gayne has something to say about the tales of the American Dream on the road. I can’t wait to see what he does with more polished tools.