An ill wind blows through the Bosphorus and into the lives—and lies—of the four key characters whose secrets and longings lead to murder in Three Monkeys, Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s gorgeously austere 2008 melodrama that followed his similarly artful and acclaimed features Distant and Climates and preceded his existential whodunit Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. This malevolent, howling force gusts through the cramped flat on the edge of Istanbul shared by short-tempered Eyüp, his long-suffering wife Hacer and their sullen son Ismail, all of whom are tied to disreputable local politico Servet. As thunder booms, lightning flashes and storm clouds roil in the spectacularly beautiful, moody skies overhead, this doomed quartet—haunted both by their own hapless actions and the occasional appearances of a waterlogged ghost child who seems to have wandered in from a J-Horror nightmare—apes the titular trio of simians to no avail; they all inevitably see, hear and speak evil, and still the wind blows.
Ceylan works wonders here with pulpy tropes: an innocent dupe takes the fall for a bigwig’s nighttime crime, a femme fatale ensnares a married moneybags with a penchant for poetry, a bored young gun stuck in a nowheresville takes a beating and seeks revenge. Astute to classic genre conventions as well as contemporary art-house vogue, Ceylan elevates his penny-dreadful plot with “slow film” stylistics—static camera setups, lingering takes, minimal dialogue, meticulous sound design, the casting of mostly amateur actors—to brilliant effect (earning him the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival, among other accolades). He is a dispassionate observer, alternately squeezing his characters into tight domestic spaces that mirror their limited options and abandoning them to the wild outdoors, where they are belittled by vast expanses and left to fend for themselves among the elements (the latter in a succession of stunning land- and seascapes, as if Caspar David Friedrich had relocated his fog-shrouded loners to the shores of Byzantium).
The film’s intriguingly elliptical narrative moves forward according to mysterious chronological patterns and unarticulated emotional states; minutes or months might pass between scenes, and interactions among the often non-communicative characters are fraught with anxiety, exchanges of words and looks veering suddenly from innocuous to inscrutable to dangerous.