It’s always sad to watch Oscar bait go wrong. You can take all the standard elements and throw them together in any combination you like, but that isn’t always enough to guarantee a good movie. In its own quest for accolades, The World to Come ticks more than its fair share of boxes. It boasts period costumes, a former Oscar winner in a supporting role, LGBTQ themes, an avant garde score that flirts dangerously with free jazz, and stunningly beautiful cinematography of desolate fog. Yet the film as a whole never amounts to more than the sum of its part as it lumbers under the dual weights of dull storytelling and awkward writing. Told largely through a series of drab diary entries turned emotionless voiceover, the film lays bare its style quite early. A few short minutes in, our nearly catatonic narrator declares, “The water froze on the potatoes as soon as they were washed. With little pride and less hope, we begin the new year.” This kind of laughably earnest writing pervades throughout the film in some misguided effort to ascribe poetic meaning to tragic banality. Instead, it comes off like the placards that might accompany a high school photo essay on sexuality: it’s tedious, pretentious, and utterly sincere in its self-importance.
The year is 1856. It is the time of petticoats, diphtheria, and lard enemas. Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Dyer (Casey Affleck) are a pair of salt-of-the-earth pig farmers trying to navigate the minefield of their sexless marriage as they eek out a meager living on the great American frontier. After their only daughter dies tragically young, they are befriended by Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and Finney (Christopher Abbot), a more affluent couple who recently settled in the area. While Dyer and Finney are out working the fields, Abigail and Tallie grow particularly close, spending nearly every minute with each other. As the pair bond over chicken plucking, laundry wringing, and swapping stories about their terrible childhoods, their relationship slowly escalates from a close friendship to a budding lesbian romance.
Though their relationship unfolds over a series of months, it feels as though it progresses at breakneck speed. From the very first moment that they exchanging longing glances from what should naturally be squinting distance to their first kiss, there is hardly a moment of film that isn’t infused with sexual tension. They do their best to keep their feelings and eventual tryst a secret, but in an old-timey world where women weren’t allowed to leave the house and there was no greater evening’s entertainment than sitting by the fire and watching time pass, their best isn’t very good, and their husbands begin to catch on before they’ve had a chance to do much of anything fun. Dyer reacts by passive-aggressively stomping around like a petulant child, while Finney plays the roll of the stereotypical Alpha Male and becomes increasingly controlling and eager to quote scripture.
While all the actors in the film seem perfectly capable of delivering solid performances, they aren’t given much to work with here. This is partly due to the breakneck speed at which the women’s feelings become apparent being undercut by the absolutely excruciating pace at which they actually act upon it, but is mostly due to the awkwardly stiff dialogue that is simply laughable as often as it is natural. For example, when the pair finally muster up the courage to lock faces and confess their feelings in The Lord’s Plain English, Tallie backs away and explains her hesitation by saying, “I’m worried you’ll catch my cold. Abigail responds to this tender moment of vulnerability by adding, “You smell like a biscuit,” at which point Tallie brings their makeout session to an abrupt end by announcing, “I have to go home,” and doing so without any further pomp or circumstance.
Verdict: 2 out of 5 Stars
The World to Come truly is the Meek’s Cutoff of lesbian erotica. More of an extended mood piece than an actual story, the narrative follows a deliberately clear narrative while somehow seeming to go absolutely nowhere in the process. Though it features a strong cast and looks absolutely marvelous on a visual level, the predictable story and ridiculously unnatural period dialogue keep the film from ever coming close to realizing its potential. If you’re ever stuck on an airplane and are desperately searching for something vaguely tolerable to watch, it’s not an entirely unrewarding experience. But fans of period dramas, stories about the struggle for gay rights, or even just chicks making out will likely find something more interesting without having to look too far past the New Releases section.