Set in the unhinged months that stretched from 9-11 to the invasion of Iraq, The Time We Killed achieves a quiet power through rough-edged, handcrafted means. Best known as an accomplished abstract filmmaker, first-time feature director Jennifer Reeves wrings bitter truth, confused paranoia, and impotent rage from an all-too-recent period, infusing them into the story of an agoraphobic poet, Robyn (real-life poet Lisa Jarnot). Robyn sequesters herself in a small Brooklyn apartment as global events unravel; a day without leaving becomes a week, then blurs into months. But the outside nevertheless intrudes: Bush calls for war on TV, concerned friends leave messages, neighbors’ arguments seep through the walls. Robyn’s verbal and visual stream of consciousness provides an internal narrative in more ways than one, as her observations blend into a lyrical swirl of sunny reverie, muted trauma, and inescapable reality. “Every day is an echo of some shit time I already had,” she says.
Reeves’s remarkable skills for expressive cinematography grant this grim tale a stark beauty bereft of sentimentality. At times, the high-contrast 16mm sharpens the world into harsh black-and-white, while DV close-ups turn plaster walls into alien landscapes. As with nonfictional depressives, Robyn proves alternately revelatory, grimly humorous, and frustratingly self-absorbed. Alone in her brick-walled cloister, her nervy brain becomes an antenna, tuned to the frequencies of human suffering, uneasily poised between empathy and narcissism. This complex enfolding of objective and subjective realities has its roots in the avant-garde, but Reeves’s feature communicates beyond traditional formalism. Through its unsugared exploration of mental illness, Time provides a metaphor for how everyday consciousness becomes crushed under history’s jackboot. It is a strong and humbling film, made for all of those who remember the nightmares.