Landscape Suicide

Landscape Suicide ★★★★

Fascinating. I'm not sure I've ever seen a film like this. Utterly cold, practically fact-based with a complete non-biased look at two murders. This is my first Benning film and based on what I've read about his work in a way I expected something like this but nowhere near as chilling yet thought-provoking as Landscape Suicide ultimately is.

The film focuses on the murder of a teenage girl by her classmate Bernadette Protti, and a murder by the notorious, infamous Ed Gein. Split up into two parts, both examinations follow a very similar structure. Benning seems to want to focus on the question of nature vs nurture. The titular landscape that encompasses the two killers is a constant as his static camera allows us to peer into the towns where these atrocities occurred. Bernadette hails from Orinda, California - a peaceful town that we witness through a car ride through suburbia as the radio plays a preacher spreading the love of god to all listeners. Later in the film we get treated to the same car ride only this time through Gein's hometown of Plainfield, Wisconsin, which is agricultural, covered in snow as the radio blares the tirade of a man fed up with war among other problems in the country. Benning's abstract style doesn't ask any direct questions but the film makes us wonder how a killer is formed. Does their background matter? Was Gein's upbringing that centred around hunting animals a catalyst that lead to his murderous ways in later life? Was it simply the actions of Bernadette's classmates that led to her lashing out?

Benning sticks his camera down and lets his viewers witness the stark realities of these two towns at various points during the film. No characters, no wildlife. Just reality. Just landscapes. As the seconds tick by the images become chilling - we're experiencing places where murders took place, where people had their last breath stolen. The absence of anything alive in each shot brings a sense of dread with it. Where is everyone? Are they hiding because they know of the atrocities committed here? Does society brush off all these brutal murders as 'just another nutcase', assured that it doesn't affect them because they're totally sane? The narrator states her daughter ripped out pages of a magazine that covered one of the murders because she didn't want to read anything that horrific and depressing. Benning uses that sole incident as a metaphor for society's unwillingness to look their fears in the eye. No one wants to believe that they're capable or evil but we are, and not every killer is an insane lunatic.

During the interrogation scenes Bernadette is visibly shaken but no one could claim she was insane. She admits to what she did, without sugarcoating it despite often struggling to string words together. She's just a kid, who asks what's going to happen next and ironically is worried about what classmates will think of her now rather than whether she'll be punished. The scene is a completely raw, unbroken shot barring the constant cuts to black by the camera that often seem like blinking. Bernadette explains what happened and it's a haunting realisation that anyone can commit such an act. Gein's interrogation is similar but achieves a totally different goal. Gein is far more well-versed with his words than Bernadette but he's clearly far more deranged. The scary thing is that not only does he not admit to guilt, but he's insanely convincing. The prosecutor can't gain a foothold and by the end of the session Gein comes away looking potentially innocent. While Bernadette's interrogation is scary to most because of how 'normal' and tepid she is and that if she could do something like this anyone could, Gein's is distressing because he's so convincing that he'd probably be dubbed innocent and released back into society to wreak more havoc. Is this why the towns that Benning gives us glimpses into completely devoid of life? Have the townsfolk realised the horrors that inhabit their lives inwardly and outwardly and simply don't want to face them? The unnerving final shot is that which adorns the poster - a man shoots a dear off screen before cutting it open and letting the dark red insides spill out onto the innocent white snow. Is this another would-be-Gein taking his first steps? Or is it the symbol of people being carved open once they finally understand the evil that inhabits the world and their lives?

The landscape is all around us, yet so often we never stop and think what incidents have occurred on these very spots that we lay our feet, on that area in the distance where our eyes wander. Benning opens our eyes, and the world becomes far chillier.

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