See This Or Die: ‘Don’t Look Now’

Our weekly feature in which a writer answers the question: if you could force your friends at gunpoint to watch one movie or TV show what would it be?

Time is not a river, running one direction, no matter how we perceive it. Time is an ocean in which we are eternally immersed, and the older I get, the more I realize that we are all Billy Pilgrim, constantly awash in our own past and present, doing everything we can to survive them so we might see some future.

This last year has been one of the most personally chaotic in my entire life, and there is so much good and so much bad all stirred in there together that it's impossible for me to pull any of it apart. Nicolas Roeg has obviously been thinking about this for most of his career, because his best films seem to understand just how fractured linear time and memory are for us. He had a run of films where he seemed to be pushing for a way to redefine cinematic language, and I think “Performance,” “Walkabout,” and “The Man Who Fell To Earth” are all outstanding movies, worth many repeat viewings.

But “Don't Look Now” is the one that I would turn to first if I was trying to explain to someone why Nicolas Roeg matters. It remains one of the most beautiful horror films of all time, and a piercing look at what happens to a couple when they lose a child. From the film's start, it is apparent that these people are haunted by what happened, and when we see the accident in those opening moments, Roeg doesn't give it to you as a master shot. Instead, it's all about the little details, the things that will stick with John (Donald Sutherland) forever when he thinks about these events. We see his daughter, a little girl in a red raincoat, drown in a pond behind their house, and we see that John was too late to save her. It's a startling opening for a film, and it leaves the audience jangled, almost too on edge to settle down again as the film begins in earnest. John and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) move to Venice, desperate to get away from the sights that keep reminding them of what they've lost.

As John works to restore a beautiful church to its former glory, Laura finds herself at odds, still unhappy, unable to make herself happy. When she meets a blind psychic woman in a restaurant, she is given a moment of hope, and Laura is so desperate for it that she goes all in, immediately sure that the woman is telling the truth. While John doesn't share his wife's belief, he's happy to see that it seems to help her. Meanwhile darkness continues to push in on the couple, and John begins seeing his daughter, her red raincoat immediately recognizable, in various places around the city, always too far away for him to quite catch.

I have a special fondness for films that feel more like dreams than real life, movies where logic is less important than mood or emotion, and Roeg's movie confidently tightens the screws over the course of the film, but not in any obvious way. Instead, he slowly uses his editing rhythm and his eye for color and detail to underline just how rotten and terrifying everything is for John and Laura since they lost their girl. The film has one of the all-time great horror movie endings, but it only works because Roeg has established long before that moment that John and Laura emotionally died when their child did, and this time in Venice is not the sunny respite they sought because nothing ever will be. Everything has turned to ash. The sun is gone. The world has rotted away around them, leaving only the pain and the sorrow. And because time is not a river, there is no escape. Nicolas Roeg knew, and the film makes clear, that we all reach a point where we can no longer kick, and time will be waiting there to swallow us as well.

“Don't Look Now” is available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. You have no excuse for not owning it.