Sometimes you just have to get away. Far, far away. Sometimes you can't see the forest for the trees. And sometimes those trees seem to get to talking to you. Fuck.
Filmmakers Daniel Martinico & Hugo Armstrong came to Slamdance in 2012 with OK, Good, about an actor getting in touch with his rawest self. They return this year with their second feature collaboration Excursions, about two city-dwelling couples on the search for utter transcendence. But what if that transcendence is forced?
Director Martinico co-writes and produces with Armstrong, who also stars, along with Jacqueline Wright, Cody Henderson and Mandy Freund, in what could very well be described as Michael Hanake's The Seventh Continent via a hot yoga class. Starting with drinking and a series of weekend-in-the-woods games that go from dominoes to cup stacking, the couples then dive into the deep end, swapping partners, before going for a full-on cleanse, intense energy work and well... chronicling all four chapters of the film would spoil the astoundingly dark and exceedingly hilarious scenes within.
Martinico's minimalist long take aesthetic set in the first two chapters of the film allows for the weirder elements to rise and fall as if one is trying to hold back a laugh in a meeting, and it keeps sneaking out as a snicker before quickly finding your composure again. Through the arrival of the first couple and the second there is a breaking down of routines, from unpacking, to chopping wood (or attempting to chop wood) that is nearly slapstick in nature. Our first couple is certainly experiencing a rift between them. We are never sure what it is about, but you can read it all over their faces and in their body language. If this weekend sojourn isn't going to bring about some kind of enlightenment they might as well be finished.
As we move along with the couples in their practices, we move away from the carefully composed, design-minded shots of the first half, into more and more closeups of hands and faces, quick cuts between the ever interwoven bodies and breaths, chants, hums, wind whipping through the trees. Though Excursions does spiral into something of a bad trip film, it is not a psychedelic freak out. Martinico keeps our viewpoint fairly grounded in everyday reality, emphasizing the ebbs and flows of nature to parallel the intense inner states the couples are tumbling and crashing into. This choice makes the film as funny as it is. And that'd be an awkward kind of funny. Should we be laughing at these people? Is it okay to think they're a bit dense, just as much as we might go "oh these poor folks! Can't they see the inherent beauty right in front of them?"
None of this would work as well as it does if it wasn't for the wonderfully committed cast. The cabin in the woods environment has always been a cinematic staple for some weird shit to go down, sure, but this is that small DIY film that has such a intimate crew where trust is built up so that the director and his actors can just really let loose and explore.
Excursions, as a whole, is a blast to watch. It curtails exploitation and horror tropes with just enough verve to make fans of those genres nod in approval, yet makes fun of such things all the same. The film's funniest and most human thematic through line probably comes in the notion that enlightenment can come in myriad ways... even in the ironic notion that there's no such thing as enlightenment at all. There's just the wind and the trees, and look there's a woman covered in mud and dirt, eyes as big as golf balls, about to pop straight outta her skull. I guess that's life.