Setting aside all the women are people too! thinking that might make us a touch more enlightened than our forebears, I have to ask: Is it possible that the old-world or frontier brothel could ever be as warm and brilliant a place as the movies posit it? In films like McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Woody Allen's copy-and-paste Kafka curio Shadows and Fog, as in dozens of last-century bildungsromans, the house of pleasure doubles as the seat of civilization itself, a perfumed respite from the barbarism abroad each night. Writer-director Aaron Schimberg's Go Down Death, a captivating excursion into surrealist Americana, shares that fascination — like some lacy moth, it flings itself toward the lamp light of a bordello at the end of all things. But the enjoyably unsteady film, haunted by visions and shot in beautiful 16mm black-and-white, never succumbs to horny nostalgia.
Set mostly in a cathouse in a fogged-over forest of ghost-skinned birch trees, Go Down Death observes johns, prostitutes, singers, soldiers and flimflam men in a series of fascinating vignettes that it leaves you to assemble into a narrative. People say things like, "A garden is never finished. Or it's always finished." After burying a corpse, a child who we've earlier seen engaging in creepy discussions with a shape-changing doctor sings a song that goes, "Got a cow — his name is mediocrity." (The music comes exclusively from the people in the brothel, a reminder of the oppressive silence of the world before ours, a point McCabe & Mrs. Miller likewise was good on.)
An older john, nude, parading about a tiny bedroom, declaims about his past to a prostitute, also nude but coyly covered — a perfect, gently moving inversion of the HBO aesthetic, and a suggestion that the idea of a man buying sex but really wanting companionship isn't always just a justification. In the undefined American past of this film, when else would this fellow get to unburden himself, at length, to a willing listener? Another john, preparing to take his purchased woman from behind, instead inspires a scene of curious horror: She's gone blind just before he enters her, and as he explains, with curious calm, that this has happened before, she can't hear him, as her other senses are going, too.
The songs and incidents are credited to folklorist Jonathan Mallory Sinus, himself a bit of folklore invented for the film. Schimberg, in this debut, demonstrates rare assuredness in shooting and staging scenes, coaxing unexpected but true-feeling flourishes from his cast of mostly amateurs blessed with extraordinary faces. The influence of Guy Maddin is strong, but much of this is singular, and Schimberg's made-up folk tales glance against the true weirdness of actual myth.
On top of all that, Schimberg pulls a first-rate switcheroo in the last reel certain to leave audiences thinking, arguing, rejecting, celebrating. Here's one you'll talk about long afterward, in this age where nobody has to pay for sex to enjoy a wide-ranging conversation.