Almost nothing excites me more about an upcoming indie movie than seeing a cast full of actors I think are great. I don’t care what the movie is about if it’s got people in it with great track records. For recent examples, movies like Black Bear, Kajillionaire, or Sound of Metal increased my probability of watching them just because I love the work their stars have done in the past. Now, this doesn’t always mean the movie will be a success in my eyes. Because for every The Lighthouse, there’s a Late Night, and for every The Art of Self-Defense, unfortunately there’s a The World to Come.
Coming into this movie, I really wanted to and thought I would like it. Casting your movie with Katherine Waterson, Vanessa Kirby, Casey Affleck, and Christopher Abbott is an excellent starting point. And having an interesting elevator pitch is another major plus.
Two couples living on the American frontier in the 1850s struggle to make ends meet on their slightly secluded farms. Abigail and Dyer (Waterson and Affleck) live a less privileged life on their newly-acquired farm and though they’re working their hardest to adjust to their new life, they are struggling to find fulfillment. This is until they meet Tallie and Finney (Kirby and Abbott), a slightly younger couple living on a much bigger and wealthier farm.
Abigail and Dyer lost a child to diphtheria and Tallie and Finney have been unable to conceive, both of which cause strain on each respective relationship. The strain causes Finney to be emotionally abusive and Dyer to often be cold to his wife, leaving Abigail and Finney to dream of a better world to come.
This is the perfect setup for an emotionally intriguing drama, especially with the four performers director Mona Fastvold had at her disposal. There is little to no time devoted to any other characters in the film, yet it still somehow feels like none of them are given time or space to shine. The direction feels very tight and each scene feels fleeting, even when it’s slowly and intentionally paced.
Abigail and Tallie eventually start up a secret romantic relationship but I still barely felt anything real between them. It may have been a lack of chemistry between the leads or just not enough time being devoted to making their relationship come to life, but the whole film feels stilted.
It’s actually quite unfortunate, because there were a handful of moments throughout the movie where I thought it was on the cusp of something truly special. Abigail and Tallie represent the hope of something more in life for each other. They’ve been stuck in these archetypal roles as frontier wives – they’re expected to cook meals, clean the home, and perform their wifely duties But as people they strive for much more and they see it in each other. The movie has the chance to explore what this means, but never fully takes the opportunity.
The World to Come approaches the precipice of greatness with four excellent performers doing their best. Kirby is going to be a Hollywood mainstay, Waterson continues to impress, Abbott consistently performs well in his sporadic background roles, and Affleck has turned into a reliable dramatic actor. But the film they’re in is never quite able to take the leap off the precipice to become something truly special.