Kelly Mintzer examines how The Long Walk uses time travel to tell a nuanced, tragic story of love, loss, and regret.
The Long Walk (2019) is a Laotian science-fiction thriller directed by Mattie Do and written by Christopher Larsen. What do we fear, what are we frightened of losing, and who are we afraid of becoming? The film’s ghost story beautifully grapples with all of these questions and is effective because of—not despite—its genre trappings. The film follows an isolated old scavenger whose ghostly companion can traverse time—hoping to prevent his mother's suffering from a terminal illness.
The Old Man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) lives in a rustic hut on the outskirts of town. He spends his days scavenging, stripping copper wire from old motorbikes and selling them to the scrap yard. He often walks with a companion, a beautiful, silent young woman (Noutnapha Soydara). The Girl and the Old Man watch from afar the day-to-day life of a little boy (Por Silatsa) and his beloved but sickly mother (Chanthamone Inoudome), selling vegetables at their roadside stand. The harvest hasn’t been kind to the family; the mother struggles to sell their wares, even at a loss.
When a local noodle shop owner vanishes, the authorities are confident that she’s dead. The police visit the Old Man to ask if he can locate the body. The village knows he communicates with the dead. The Old Man declines, resenting how society, and the shop owner’s daughter, have ignored and neglected her. The woman’s daughter, Lina (Vilouna Phetmany), pleads her case: she simply wants to find her mother’s body to give her a proper burial, sending her off to the next life. The Old Man holds fast, but the two eventually form a bond. Lina moves into his shack, keeping house and tending his garden while he walks and visits the Boy, accompanied by the Girl.
The Old Man explains to the Boy that his mother is sick and that she won’t recover and teaches him how to brew tea to soothe his mother’s cough. As the Old Man continues interacting with the Boy, slight changes in reality occur. A glass cabinet develops cracks without having been broken. The Old Man witnessed his mother die a slow, painful death, shaping his entire worldview. He becomes obsessed with easing the suffering of the terminally ill, and over the years, he has quietly euthanized sick women. While straddling space and time, he teaches the boy to provide their mother with the peaceful end he could not give her. The Old Man’s machinations cause increasing damage; the more he alters the past, the worse his present becomes.
The Long Walk fits a lot of plot into just under two hours. It could quickly sink into a confusing mess in the hands of an unskilled director. Do, however, guides the film with a steady, assured hand. She carefully balances the old scavenger’s story with the boy’s, intertwining their lives until a cataclysmic moment. She reveals The Long Walk’s master plan in carefully framed shots that expertly balance dread and melancholy.
The Long Walk has more on its mind than simply time travel and ghosts. The Old Man cannot move beyond the defining moment of his life—the loss of his mother. This stasis appears in overt ways: the returning to his childhood and the mercy killings of women, like his mother. The movie also deploys more subtle cues, taking place at some undisclosed future date, demonstrated by the chips embedded in people's arms that they use to pay for goods and services. However, the Old Man doesn’t exist in that world any more than he must. His home is in the middle of nowhere, far from the city occasionally spied in the background skyline. He exists in self-imposed isolation, shunning electricity, and his only connection is Lina. He refuses to move forward with his life, literally.
The film uses time travel to explore the well-trodden adage “be careful what you wish for.” The Old Man knows he can’t save his mother but believes he can spare her pain. He convinces himself that his euthanasia is a kind act spurred by a desire to spare women from suffering. He has no reason to believe these deaths are what the women want and deludes himself into thinking it’s mercy instead of selfishness. His choice to spare his mother takes the choice away from the Boy with disastrous results.
Each performance is beautiful, but it is decidedly Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy’s movie. His portrayal of the Old Man is sad without being maudlin, grizzled, and hard without being cruel. Chanthalungsy plays every one of the Old Man’s revelations as a logical end. He doesn’t expect them, but he processes and understands them immediately when they occur. The Old Man desperately wants to be good, and Chanthalungsy elegantly and sorrowfully plays out the gradual realization that he may not be.
The Long Walk is a thoughtful and complex film. It uses each of its genre trappings to tell a nuanced, tragic story of love, loss, and regret. While the ghost story may not terrify audiences, it will linger and remain long after the credits roll.
The Long Walk premiered thematically in the United States in February and is available on digital on-demand. The film is also available on Limited Edition Blu-Ray from Yellow Veil Pictures.