What is it that makes Putty Hill one of the more striking American independent films of recent years?
Is it the genuine working class Baltimore setting, where director Matt Porterfield grew up and still lives today?
Is it the cinematography by Jeremy Saulnier?
Is it the ensemble of nonprofessional actors who give the film a genuine, unaffected sense of character?
Or is it the questions?
Putty Hill does so much with the first three elements to immerse you in the documentary-like authenticity of its world. But the film tears its own fabric of verisimilitude in scenes where Porterfield spontaneously interviews the characters, asking them questions from offscreen.
These interviews are a paradox: They break the film’s documentary realism by making its format a subject in itself. One might worry that such a strategy would reek of arty self-consciousness, but there’s something genuine about it, because it puts Porterfield’s relationship with his characters front and center. Porterfield spent a long time working with each of these nonprofessionals, asking them questions to help them develop their characters, mixing their real life experiences and fictional inventions. These scenes are both the outcome and an acknowledgment of that process. What it reveals about Porterfield is that he is not just a director of these subjects, but a confidante. In other words, he is as much a member of this community, and a character in his film, as those on screen.
You can already see this questioning approach in Porterfield’s first film Hamilton. The majority of the dialogue consists of questions and responses. By my count there are 65 questions asked in this 65-minute film. Even the rap song featured in a key scene is full of questions. Hamilton seemingly has the objective surface of an observational documentary, but when you listen to these dialogue scenes, you can practically hear Porterfield’s voice from Putty Hill in each conversation in Hamilton. Porterfield’s world shows everyday life as an investigative documentary, with people constantly interrogating each other, seeking answers.
Is there an underlying significance to all these questions? Both films deal with the ripple effect on a community caused by a private trauma. In Hamilton, it’s a teen pregnancy; in Putty Hill it’s a suicide. In most films, asking questions would serve to explore these incidents and lead towards a dramatic resolution. Here, the questions themselves are the drama: a constant effort to reach out and stay connected. The more questions are asked, the more they suggest how vulnerable these relationship are, and how strong the desire is to hold them together. In Porterfield’s films, the story is less important than exploring the community in which it takes place, and what’s at stake in preserving it.
Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, Video Essayist for Fandor Keyframe, and contributor to Roger Ebert.com. Follow him on Twitter.