Running up that ‘Pilgrim Hill’ (2013).

13 Apr

Pilgrim Hill poster 3Pilgrim Hill is a movie which proves that even the most mundane subject, in this case farming, could be turned into an incredibly powerful film in the right hands. But to say this is a picture about the trials and tribulations of working the land and rearing cattle would be doing it a disservice; Pilgrim Hill is a dark, sombre examination of loneliness, isolation and, primarily, depression.

Jimmy Walsh (played by Joe Mullins, a Killinaskully vet) is a middle-aged, single farmer operating in the rolling hills of deepest rural Clare.  Between a critically ill father, an infuriating younger relative (Muiris Crowley) and a persistent sense of loneliness, Jimmy’s life has been tough lately. However, it’s about to get a whole lot worse, as not only is his longing for company, both romantic and simply Platonic, starting to get the better of him, but a problem with his livestock threatens to capsize his only real source of income.

While the movies are in no way alike, what Pilgrim Hill reminded me of the most was 2011’s The Grey, that film in which Liam Neeson and co had to survive in a snowy wilderness bursting with bloodthirsty wolves. I link the two purely because they both surprised me in the same way; while I expected this to be an agricultural drama, and likewise presumed The Grey would focus on wolf-related escapades, it turned out that both movies primarily concerned themselves with a palpable sense of existential grief.

Jimmy is a friendly and likeable guy with an admirable work ethic, but he longs for another human face to have around the house. He mentions having conversations with the cows he milks, and throughout the film only converses with six people: his work-shy, new-age yuppie cousin  Tommy, his sister Ann, a Garda who stops and breathalyses him, a shopkeeper, a barman and his dying father, and those final two don’t answer back at all.

What begins as a mere sadness, which Jimmy seems to brush off with relative ease, slowly progresses into what seems to be full-blown depression by the end of the film. He is in a sense grieving for what he never had; the prospect of having a family moves him almost to tears, and the realisation that the chances of such a development would be slim is absolutely heartbreaking. His terminal dad, combined with the prospect of losing his cattle, which are like family to him, proves to be the final twist of the knife.

Not a lot actually happens in this film. Its slow pacing mirrors the subject matter, yet manages to never be boring.

Not a lot actually happens in this film. Its slow pacing mirrors the subject matter, yet manages to never be boring.

This crushing sense of loneliness is not only revealed through his facial expressions, but also during the introspective interview-style scenes where Tommy speaks to the camera. While this framing device is never actually explained, we presume it’s for the makers of this very film, which if true would be an impressively meta way of handling the premise. This lack of clarity is of zero detriment to the movie itself though; rather, it adds yet another layer to this already detailed story.

Joe Mullins deserves major credit for his performance, which is less of a step up and more of an astronomical leap up from the funny if nonsensical TV programme Killinascully. He really gives it his all, and I struggle to think of a ‘famous’ actor who could have handled the role any better. Director, writer, producer and general cinematic Swiss army knife Gerard Barrett is without doubt one to watch, as this is a truly masterful début.

As a philosophy student, I found the echoes of Nietzschean nihilism tantalising, and present real food for thought. I honestly can’t recommend this enough, and at 88 minutes it won’t take up too much of your day either. What with the excellent Earthbound and the well-named Good Vibrations, Irish cinema is on a roll at the moment, and long may it continue!

Simon says: a distressingly real look at grief, depression and loneliness. Moving.

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