Compact and athletic in their identical cargo pants, Alex (Gael García Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) are almost the same size, a pair of well-traveled pixies making their way through Georgia (the country, not the state). They're engaged to be married, but in the meantime they're backpacking, a journey that, when The Loneliest Planet begins, is about to take them into the Caucasus Mountains on a multi-day hike for which they've hired a guide named Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze). They look so happy and free, Nica and Alex, trying out the few phrases of Georgian they've picked up and partaking of local street food after a minor investigation as to what kind of meat it involves. They're the opposite of ugly Americans (Alex might not actually be American at all), ready to try anything and quietly confident that they'll be welcomed, that the world is meant to be explored.
The third film from Julia Loktev (Day Night Day Night) and, by this critic's reckoning, one of the finest of the year, The Loneliest Planet is based on a short story by Tom Bissell that's itself inspired by a famous Hemingway work, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. That earliest incarnation of this narrative is about a wealthy couple on a hunting trip in Africa lead by a professional guide, the wife a beautiful, emasculating figure who punishes her husband for a recent display of cowardice out in the bush. Bissell offered up a less toxic, contemporized take on the characters, but Loktev's version is something else again, a profoundly cinematic exploration of the way a single incident completely unsettles the way this man and woman think of each other and themselves.
The Loneliest Planet is primarily a three-person drama, and its eventual deep emotional turmoil and the power shifts that come with it play out not in speech but in behavior, submerged in everything from the withholding of physical contact to the formation in which the trio of hikers walks. The splintering incident, which takes place at the midpoint of the film, is in fact never discussed, though it reverberates throughout everything that follows. It's a frightening but relatively minor thing that comes complete with a punchline, the kind of story you'd get mileage out of at a dinner party, but what it reveals about Alex and, eventually, Nica, is such that the couple stumbles through the hours after in a state of shock.
The Loneliest Planet was made with an intoxicating and precise faith in the ability of images to convey feelings that words would be too clumsy and blunt to appropriately delineate. Its sophistication in its storytelling isn't minimalism, exactly - the film never feels like it's making a gimmick of its stretches of silence or choosing them over exchanges of dialog, but rather makes it clear that speech is unnecessary or inadequate. The film's giant in scope, set against gorgeous wilderness, pulling back for periodic long shots in which the characters are tiny beside the splendid scenery. But its dramas are claustrophobic, defined in part by the presence of Dato as the outsider witnessing this implosion, the three always in each other's company as they make their way over rocky and grassy terrain and break to camp for the night.
Loktev, working with cinematographer Inti Briones, allows the film to flow out in long takes, the camera another impassive observer, sometimes still and other times tracking alongside the trio as they walk. The unbroken shots demand very intimate performances - Bernal and Furstenberg both have interesting, mobile faces that are allowed to occupy the frame for unhurried beats. Furstenberg, with her bright red hair and gap teeth, is a goofily unconventional beauty, and Bernal's at his best like this, when he allows his handsomeness to be accompanied by a note of shiftiness. He and Furstenberg suggest their characters' whole history together in easy shorthand, from the game they make of conjugating verbs in Spanish to the way they settle in to read Knut Hamsun at night in their tent.
They aren't smug, but a halo of bohemian sophistication illuminates many of their actions, from Nica's insistence that she doesn't need help navigating a tricky crossing to Alex noting that he doesn't have a car, only a bicycle. As it's put to the test several times in the latter half of the film, it's revealed as a surface quality covering up underlying expectations neither Nica nor Alex may have realized they harbored. Non-pro Gujabidze brings both a dry humor and an almost frightening soulfulness to his character. As Nica drifts to his side, a cowed Alex trails after them, seeking out penance by insisting they needn't stop when he hurts his leg and going out into the rain without a jacket.
Dato's otherness becomes evident and a kind of test, the life he's led so different and so marked by tragedy that he dwarfs Nica and Alex in the privilege they've been able to enjoy, in the existences that have left them unscarred, fresh and unaware. They are, for all their curiosity and adventurousness, just visitors, passing through and taking in these sites and experiences before heading home. For all the film's long silences, it's the opening up and talking that becomes the loneliest moment of them all, a sharp and the sudden reveal of the distance that can exist between two people.