What initially seems most inscrutable about “Gray House” — its simmering, stuttering aesthetics, its blend of straight-arrow documentary testimony and languidly constructed visual art, the disorienting presence of Denis Lavant in a Texas backwater — falls a little more into place once you consider its pedigree. This quietly arresting first feature by Austin Lynch, son of David, certainly lives up to the family name in its cultivated, charcoal-hued strangeness, but happily reveals a stark creative sensibility inherited from no clear source. Viewers are given few overt clues as to how to join the dots between the film’s heartfelt interviews with male oil-field workers and female prisoners, along with more abstract digressions across the American class spectrum, but vivid, lowering atmosphere proves the binding element between them. Following its world premiere at CPH:DOX, where it received a special jury mention, “Gray House” should extensively engage gray matter on the festival circuit.
Fourteen minutes pass before a single word is spoken in “Gray House” — and this extent of silence is apt in a film that, through its disconnected segments, examines both the beauty and despair of human solitude. Scarcely a shot here is occupied by more than one body; many are wholly unpeopled, though the evidence of human habitation haunts some of Lynch’s sparsest tableaux. Shot against a blank white background, interview subjects are expressly divorced from the environments they talk about; for balance, man-made spaces of industry and residence are frequently shown in states of ghostly desertion. Even men and women are mostly separated in Lynch’s film, which segues at the midway point from a predominantly male to female point of view. Population is thus broken down into its smallest individual units throughout the film, while the separating spaces between us are darkly foregrounded.
Where to begin a portrait of an alienated America, then? Why, it may as well be with Denis Lavant. Long a figure of eerie, lone-wolf contemplation for auteurs from Claire Denis to Leos Carax, the French actor silently anchors the first chapter of Lynch’s essay, pottering with doleful, uncertain purpose around a dour-faced tin cottage — the gray house of the title, it seems — in Matagorda, Texas. Prominent in the film’s crisp, minimal sound design, water runs audibly from a range of sources in the house: proof of life, in a sense, that Lavant’s out-of-place, specter-like presence doesn’t entirely provide.
Just as the oblique, ambient surrealism of this segment takes hold, however, Lynch unnerves us with a switch to candid, conventional documentary form. Relocating to Williston, North Dakota, he offers a series of talking-head interviews with laborers from the region’s desolate oil fields, their largely unhappy testimonies giving voice to the air of dejection already present in the film’s cinematic language. Some have travelled away from their families in the absence of work closer to home, another has taken it as a post-divorce escape route — yet for all these common threads of experience, “Gray House” connotes no sense of community.
The same goes for a second chapter of interviews, this time with several resigned inmates at a women’s prison in Wilsonville, Oregon, whose respective descriptions of longing — for their families, for the outdoors, for a disruption — may be unwittingly shared between them, but whose loneliness is very much their own. With apologies to John Donne, in “Gray House,” every man (and woman) is an island. Lynch offers no contextualizing narration, but the symmetry of the interviews’ weighting and positioning in the film’s overall structure makes the point plainly and movingly enough: The prison and the oil fields appear alike in their physical and spiritual confinement of working-class Americans.
What “Gray House” wishes us to make of this parallel (and the more sculpted mood intrusions of its performed segments) is up for teasing debate. It’s by no means a social tract, though a California-set coda — nodding to bourgeois insularity as the camera glazes across the immaculate, milky architecture of a Los Angeles dream home, complete with a sharply bleeping security system — provides pointed contrast to the preceding explorations. Yet thanks to serenely drab lensing by Matthew Booth (who shares “a film by” credit with the helmer) and the low, anxious industrial drone of Alvin Lucier’s music, the film’s more disparate digressions are linked in tone and texture: There’s a common color to the forms of isolation shown in “Gray House,” albeit in up to fifty shades.