Two men have escaped from captivity and are fleeing across the curiously diverse landscapes of an unknown country. One of the men (Robert Shaw, Jaws) is violent and opportunistic, and the other (Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange) is thoughtful and conscientious, but that's more or less all we know about them. We don't really known anything about why the men were being held captive or where they're ultimately hoping to go. They're being pursued by a mysterious black helicopter, but we don't know who their pursuers are or what they want. They're occasionally given aid by the assorted people they encounter in the small villages they pass through, but we don't know who these people are or why they're helping.
Initially, this feels like the set-up to a mystery-driven action film, but Joseph Losey's Figures in a Landscape eventually reveals that it has no interest in filling any of the sizable narrative gaps it begins with. In a very basic structural sense, this is a conventional action movie: “good guys” on the run, “bad guys” chasing them. However, the film has been so thoroughly stripped of the sort of information that usually fuels such films that it often feels less like an action-packed thriller than a philosophically-inclined arthouse flick. With all traditional forms of meaning removed, what does a conflict like this really mean?
Lacking anything resembling conventional characterization or storytelling to work with, the whole situation begins to attain a strange, absurd quality. The two men – usually running, occasionally hiding – are often depicted in long shots that make them look like frightened rabbits scurrying away from their prey. Meanwhile, the black helicopter that follows them begins to resemble a playful predator of sorts – never moving in for the kill despite having plenty of opportunities to do so, but always watching and maintaining a threat of violence. When you take the assorted rationalizations human beings offer for doing these things out of the equation, humanity's more animalistic instincts seem alarmingly clear. This is war as seen through the eyes of an alien who is struggling to understand why we behave the way we behave.
I must confess, however, that I found the film's ideas more compelling in theory than in execution. Losey seems to go out of his way to sap anything resembling conventional thrills out of the proceedings, which is understandable from an artistic perspective (the last thing the film wants to do is excite its audience), but nonetheless leaves us with a film that proves awfully difficult to grow emotionally invested in. The best sequence arrives late in the proceedings, as Shaw and McDowell decide to share a few personal stories with each other and reveal a little bit of themselves. In that brief moment, we are permitted to see them as people, not as pawns of an arthouse experiment. Alas, it isn't long before they're swept back into Losey's intelligent-but-frustrating meditation. Figures in a Landscape made me think, but it also made me want to watch a John Woo movie or something.
Figures in a Landscape
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Year: 1970