This one comes requested by Paul Bright, a local actor/writer/director multi-hyphenate whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet on quite a few occasions. His latest endeavor is Crossing Shaky Ground, a new indie film set and shot right here in Oregon.
To be perfectly frank, I don’t mind confessing that I tend to go a bit easier on films that appeal to my hometown pride. (Though admittedly, that same pride makes abominations like Gone or Bad Samaritan all the more painful.) And when I see so many of my good personal friends in the cast and crew, of course I want them and their movie to succeed. And anyway, in the specific case of indie films, of course it’s only fair that films made without Hollywood money or equipment be held to a different standard.
But not even fifteen minutes into this one, I knew I was in trouble.
For those who haven’t spent any time living here in recent memory, we of the Pacific Northwest have spent the past several years in a constant state of crippling anxiety over the Great Cascadia Quake. Long story short, based on all the archaeological and geological evidence available to us, the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the Pacific coast creates a massive earthquake — somewhere between 8 and 9 on the Richter scale — roughly every 500 years. The last time this happened on January 26th of 1700, the earthquake off the Oregon coast caused a massive tsunami all the way over in Japan!
For the past decade or so, all of Portland has been deathly afraid that The Big One could strike at any minute. When it does, huge swaths of the city — including pretty much all of our bridges — will collapse into the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. Our infrastructure will be totalled, and of course the casualties will be sky high. As a direct result, disaster preparedness has been a significant factor in Portland culture and politics for quite some time now.
Crossing Shaky Ground is a movie that speculates on the aftermath of the Great Cascadia Quake. It’s a road movie that covers a 750-mile journey from the coastal town of Astoria to the populous city of Portland. Bear in mind that Astoria (a coastal town) was literally wiped off the map by the quake, and Portland (the most populous city in Oregon) has been reduced to what’s basically a war zone.
The kicker here is that the filmmakers wanted to use this natural catastrophe as a means of examining human nature and the divisions between us in these hyper-polarized times in which everyone is fighting each other along sociopolitical lines. As a direct result, this isn’t the kind of movie in which a huge natural disaster brings us all together.
This is the kind of movie in which everyone’s an asshole. Even the protagonist only gets more grating as he interacts with all the other argumentative assholes in this picture.
The opening scene sets the tone, introducing a supporting character (later identified as Lynda, played by Maria Mogavero) as she pulls a shoplifting scam. We then cut to our protagonist (Aaron, played by Sean McCarty), a disaster preparedness expert giving a lecture to three insultingly whiny millennial stereotypes without an ounce of common sense or empathy between them. (Why such narcissistic nincompoops would ever sign up for disaster preparedness in the first place is beyond me, so my suspension of disbelief was already shot.)
Then the earthquake hits. The sequence was quite obviously shot on East Morrison in the central eastside of Portland, which I guess looks close enough to downtown Astoria, but I digress. The point is, we see Aaron in downtown “Astoria”, then we more or less smash cut to him hitchhiking through the rural Oregon backwater.
The first car drives right past him. The second car stops long enough for the driver to steal what cash Aaron has. The third car actually hits Aaron, and the driver (the aforementioned Lynda) drives off while actively refusing to give Aaron a ride.
This point right here, roughly 20 minutes into the film, is where I checked out entirely.
According to the screenwriting credits, Paul Bright got credited for “story”, and all five of the leading actors (namely Sean McCarty, Maria Mogavero, Eleanor O’Brien, Jonas Israel, and Jonah Kersey) are credited with “dialogue”. Additionally, the film’s website sells this movie as a work of “cinema verite”. Put together, it appears that this was a film made in a semi-improvised style, like the late Lynn Shelton did to far superior effect in films like Your Sister’s Sister, Sword of Trust, Humpday, and so on.
When Shelton did this, it allowed for moments that felt spontaneous and characters that felt authentic. With Paul Bright and company, alas, all the dialogue feels terribly forced. None of the transitions or segues feel natural. The scenes themselves are awkward and unpleasant to sit through. The ramshackle plot can only barely hold itself together until it finally and completely implodes in the closing fifteen minutes. Worst of all, not a single supporting character registers as a sympathetic human being, or even a real one.
With one exception.
My man Jonas Israel comes in (you may remember him from my review of My Summer as a Goth), near the end of the first act, in the role of Ben. He serves as a kind of traveling partner/sounding board for Aaron. Jonas’ brand of dry humor and world-weary charm was exactly what this film needed. I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to have two characters on the screen I didn’t hate, talking with each other like halfway decent people. It’s not a lot and the dialogue isn’t much better, and we still have to deal with the three utterly wretched travelling partners who hop on and drop out as the plot unfolds. But god damn did it help to have something — ANYTHING — I could emotionally invest in.
The movie has a lot to say about how completely and totally unprepared we are for The Big One. A great example comes when Aaron is faced with the reality that his money is entirely gone. I’m not just talking about the cash that got stolen. I’m not even talking about the cards in his wallet that he can’t use because nobody in the Pacific Northwest has electricity. By the time the banks come back online, they’ll be completely wiped out and it could be ages before Aaron or anyone else is able to access the money in their account, if at all.
Furthermore, it’s one thing to be a selfish asshole who takes advantage of everyone else. It’s quite another to stand your ground and defend what’s yours. And it’s (possibly) something else to be in such desperate straits that you can’t help somebody else, even if they’re just as fatally desperate for help. The lines between them aren’t always clear, and they’re even harder to figure out in the middle of a natural calamity when all of society has broken down.
In fact, our main characters don’t really start acting like a cohesive unit until they finally find some semblance of shelter at the start of the third act. It seems so obvious, but it’s maybe worth considering that we’re so angry with each other all the time because we’re constantly worrying about keeping our jobs, keeping our homes, putting food on the table, and so on. Maybe if we all took care of each other and made sure our needs were properly met, we could slow the pace and calm down long enough to have an actual discussion.
Moreover, it’s explicitly shown that because Aaron and company have suffered such hardship, they’re so much more sympathetic to the strangers crossing their paths. As opposed to the local yokels who hunker down in place and shoot intruders on sight.
Maybe it takes both to bring us together: It’s not enough merely to share hardship, but also to share in the reprieve when the hardship has passed. That’s basically the most coherent artistic statement I can get out of this picture.
In the end, I’d say that I respect Crossing Shaky Ground more than I like it. I don’t see many movies coming out of Hollywood to promote disaster preparedness and awareness of the Great Cascadia Quake, and of course I’m all for it. More than that, these filmmakers clearly set out to ask how modern Americans — a society of paranoid, materialistic, narcissistic, belligerent, militaristic, judgmental, willfully ignorant bunch of conspiracy theorists who can’t seem to agree on much of anything except “I got mine, so fuck you” — could possibly come together even in time of crisis. God knows that’s a relevant topic right now, in an election year marked by escalated racial protests and open defiance of pandemic protocols.
This film was made with the explicit goal of holding up a mirror to life as it is right now, and it succeeds all too well. Because like real life, it’s messy, unstructured, heartbreaking, meandering, and loaded with assholes too proud to accept your sympathy. Of course I can forgive the film for its nonexistent budget, but I can’t forgive plotting and dialogue so sloppy that the cast and crew might as well have gone in without a script and made everything up on the fly.
I asked Paul when the film might be available to public audiences, and the short answer is “We don’t know.” Typically, distributors gauge interest by way of audience reactions at film festivals, except there are no audiences or film festivals right now. So instead, the filmmakers and prospective distributors are relying on advance reviews (like this one).
In any case, Paul assured me that if nothing else, the film will be heading to online streaming somewhere at some point eventually. If you’re interested, here’s another link to the film’s website so you can keep current on future developments. Also, be sure and leave a comment here if this sounds like the kind of movie you’d be interested in seeing, or even if you wouldn’t be interested, because distributors are apparently listening. You can also contact Paul directly at firstname.lastname@example.org — let him know I sent you.