As the title hints, it's a kind of Western: A small-town posse (police chief, prosecutor, stenographer and coroner) drives by night through the Turkish steppe, trying to illuminate the shallow grave where a confessed murderer dropped his victim. But the killer was drunk, and is now confused. The night is pitch black, and every tilled field is the same brown. The lawmen cajole and bully their suspect while sharing cigarettes, snacks and stories with each other. They are, in several senses, lost. And the misgiving that slowly dawns with bleak light over Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is whether they can bear all the evidence they find.
It is the monumental movie of 2012: If there's any justice, this is the picture plucked from the Portland International Film Festival that will leave audiences awed and arguing. That debate should include what it means to draw from Western tropes for a present-day police movie. What lawlessness and isolation is eternal? The Cannes-laureled director Nuri Bilge Ceylan zooms toward his actors' weathered, warped faces for Leone-iconic close-ups—these abstracted monologues seem to take place in a reality just outside the rest of the plot—but the procedural feels like it peeled the violence away from Sam Peckinpah's canon, leaving the big, self-bruising men to wander in the dust. The showdowns are all internal.
Mostly the men are forced to admit how alone they are. There's a holy moment at the film's center where all their regret and longing is revealed: In a blackout, somewhere in the sticks, a gorgeous girl brings tea by candlelight, and each man's face is alight with awe. Even the dead man's ghost settles in for the communion. That illusion of togetherness is so painful because it is so fleeting. At the other end of the movie (in unforgiving daylight) is an autopsy, methodical and slushy, where the doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) is literally stained by what he learns. I won't talk about what he sees. He certainly can't. The movie has already demonstrated that some truths are too cruel to share. They should be left buried.
SEE IT: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia screens at 6:45 pm Friday-Wednesday, April 6-11, at the Hollywood Theatre.