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If the COVID pandemic is destined to have any sort of lasting impression on art, it’s going to be with an increase in films that have an abundance of phone conversations. Obviously filmed during the lockdown, Ride the Eagle is almost an entire movie featuring a man alone in a woodsy cabin, talking on the phone to his boss and his ex-girlfriend, and doing so while watching a VHS recording of his dead mother on TV. In fact, there are only two scenes that feature two people on screen at once.
I suppose a film about a man hearing of his mother’s passing after not seeing her for a long time is less on-the-nose than a movie about a man who was forced to be distant from his now-deceased mother due to a global pandemic. Jake Johnson plays Leif, a stoner percussionist who lives in his friend’s pool house until one day he’s informed that his mother, Honey (Susan Sarandon), has died of cancer. Having been out of Leif’s life since he was 12, Honey leaves her son a conditional inheritance where he must go to her cabin in Yosemite and complete a to-do list in order to receive everything she has, including the cabin itself.
Never taking its scavenger hunt premise to the extremes that it promises, Ride the Eagle struggles to find its hook along the way. Honey’s tasks never get as crazy as we want them to and the lessons that Leif learns never become quite as poignant. However, that’s quite the idea. Focusing on the expectations we have of life fitting into a structured narrative with fulfilling arcs and wistful poeticism, director Trent O’Donnell takes the story’s standard setups and moves them left of center. Rather than beginning the list as soon as he arrives at the cabin in the early evening, Leif goes to bed for no good reason.
But this isn’t a filmmaking mistake; it encapsulates the movie’s themes about the common void of poeticism in real life and is, itself, a resistance to art imitating life imitating art. However, the film can’t entirely avoid its tenets, as it often adheres to the traditional narrative conventions that it so desperately wants to avoid.
A recent release (with similar themes) that does this in unwavering fashion was last year’s Nomadland. The Best Picture winner not only keeps the stride with its anti-narrative pretense, but even goes to great lengths to preserve this pseudo-vérité quality. Ride the Eagle, on the other hand, constantly reminds us that it’s very much scripted; that it’s very much a movie. And there’s no problem with that at all! Although this also renders the main theme misguided. The thing is, the movie actually needs that poeticism it so stubbornly tries to forego, even though that’s how it tries to set itself apart.
All of the surprises here come in the form of how characters react and respond – not with the plot itself. As far as the sequence of events, almost every hub is telegraphed up until the very end.
The film is able to maintain its naturalistic aspirations almost exclusively living on the workmanship performances of its cast, actors who all settle in that perfect groove between ironic and serious. Johnson, who also co-writes the film, doesn’t stray far from his usual goofball type, but still remains relatively tame in order to find the depth within his character. He’s “surrounded” by pros such as Susan Sarandon and J. K. Simmons – the latter he shares a scene with – veterans who all bring something different here than what we’ve seen them do in the past.
Despite the distancing premise, Ride the Eagle manages to build its relationships well…somehow. One of Leif’s tasks is to call “the one who got away.” And so he rekindles a relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Audrey (D’Arcy Carden), who becomes the person he talks to the most throughout the film, even though the entirety of the dialogue takes place over the phone or in text messages.
I’m not sure how these scenes were filmed, but it almost feels like the actors were literally giving one another their lines remotely. In a movie as low-maintenance as this, these kinds of film-making techniques are likely to occupy our minds more than the movie itself.
Simply put, there are better, more cohesive films that attempt to say the same things that Ride the Eagle is trying to say. However, if you’re able to connect to its themes about abandonment and forgiveness (as I’m certain some will) that might make all the difference. Worth watching for Jake Johnson alone, this might be nothing else but proof the actor’s quirky charms are good enough to carry a movie.