The Plagiarist is a script-driven, wordy movie capable of surprise.
Through monologues and arguments, its protagonists say the right thing and the wrong thing in equal measure, teetering on the edge of some coming doom that neither can articulate. The anxieties that bring together and separate Anna and Tyler, an engaged pair of artists, feel fresh and of 2019. How we see ourselves is the topic at hand, and this lo-fi picture, the work of director Peter Parlow and writers James N. Kienitz Wilkins and Robin Schavoir, has big ideas about when seeing the world through artist’s eyes fails.
We open with Anna (Lucy Kaminsky) and Tyler (Eamon Monaghan) dealing with a broken down car in dead-winter upstate New York. A black man, Clip (Michael “Clip” Payne), offers help and a place to stay while they wait for his cheap mechanic. Immediately charming and empathetic, Clip triggers in Tyler and Anna both inspiration and suspicion. The couple privately debates whether to stay with the kind stranger, half-confronting the racism inherent in their suspicion.
The first 30 minutes, in which the couple mills about Clip’s home, floating in and out of involved conversations with Clip, suggest at every turn that someone is about to do something wrong. That someone seems more likely to be Anna or Tyler. In a movie as deeply focused on conversation as this one, the threat of plot, of something coming to interrupt a warm talk with a stranger, provides the narrative oomph.
Anna and Tyler unspool their professional anxieties for Clip. Anna is a novelist who can’t seem to finish her first novelist; Tyler is a filmmaker who refuses to call himself one because he’s only a cinematographer for commercials. Naming matters a lot to them. They’re both fighting for a sense of artistic integrity, and crippled by the obstacle of actually finishing something truly their own.
At the movie’s midpoint, Clip tells a beautiful story that proves the catalyst for the rest of the action. It impacts Anna terrifically. The difference between the story, the specific language of Clip’s monologue, and the moment, the experience Anna underwent hearing it, drives a terror into the middle of Tyler and Anna’s relationship, one they cannot communicate to anyone else.
The greatest strength of the script is the job it does painting Anna and Tyler as the sometimes charismatic, often neurotic messes so many of us are. They talk and talk and talk, through self-awareness and total myopia. They argue but don’t always fight.
The performances from Kaminsky, Monaghan, Payne, and Emily Davis, who plays a friend of Anna’s, are lived-in. Everyone seems tired: Lucy has been finishing her novel for months; Tyler has been trying to make a movie for years; Clip has likely been hosting strangers for far longer. Despite the sheer abundance of lines on the page for each character, the drama is subterranean, leaving lots of work for each actor.
The honesty of the movie is aided by the filmmakers’ decision to shoot on older TV characters, which strip away any glamour from our protagonists. Whether shot in Clip’s living room, Anna and Tyler’s car, or a gas station parking lot, each scene traps you next to Anna and Tyler’s worries.
The perspective of the film never strays from Anna and Tyler. Kienitz Wilkins and Schavoir are considering the way we think of ourselves and the way think of our partners, and most importantly, the way we don’t recognize the interiority of the people on our periphery. The Plagiarists wants to know what writers don’t see.
The film recently screened at New Directors/New Films festival.