The best you can say for toil is that it can fill up enough of a life that you don’t have to spend your days thinking about the things you’d rather not. So it goes in Dutch director Nanouk Leopold’s It’s All So Quiet, a penetrating slog that, perhaps cleverly, offers viewers the chance to participate in its protagonist’s chief endeavor: finding a way to pass the time while waiting for a mean old man to die. To its credit — and perhaps to most viewers’ slumping disinterest — this still, observant film stirs exactly the feelings it depicts. It’s too bad porn has never achieved such verisimilitude.
The lead is Jeroen Willems, in his final film role, playing Helmer, a small-time farmer whose operation is poised awkwardly between business and hobby. As we watch him tend to his sheep and round up errant donkeys, his face a slab with a couple features chiseled in, we may wonder why he’s bothering. His work at home offers the answer: His father lies mouldering in bed, near his end, and Willems makes cleaning his soiled linens part of the same what-else-you-gonna-do grind.
“What do you see?” Dad asks, as Helmer studies a bird in a tree outside the death chamber’s window.
“Nothing,” Helmer says, and you believe him, possibly with a jolt: We’re looking at the bird, because the framing is artful and the lush plumage arresting, but Helmer is more likely just aiming his head that direction until the moment passes. This isn’t The Plow That Broke the Plains — it’s The Farmwork That Gives Us Something to Do.
There’s little dialogue and even less incident: Workers associated with the farm and the old ways of living are breaking off, leaving Helmer alone. Helmer stands nude before a mirror, appraising himself, but not like he would a beef shank — he, like us, seems to be trying to find out who he is, to see what heart beats beneath the layers of repression. On occasion, he dares sensitivity: praising the “beautiful hands” of a friend, or — speaking of beautiful hands — hiring a young worker (Martijn Lakemeier) who later turns up in his bed for an oblique encounter that leaves both more confused and alone than before.
The camerawork is intimate and exact. Willems grinds through it all with affecting reserve, holding everything back yet still always on the verge of panicked discomfort. As soon as there’s no more work to do, his Helmer looks like Michael Shannon after biting into a bad plum and being too polite to spit it out. The film is work, but it’s upsetting, insightful, and sometimes gorgeous — admire its cold suns and withering cornfields. It’s more than just another thing to point your head at.