Real Deal


Cam Archer, Shit Year, 2010, stills from a black-and-white film, 95 minutes.

I IMAGINE THOSE WHO had written off Cam Archer as yet another Gus Van Sant acolyte after seeing his debut, Wild Tigers I Have Known (2006), will be in for a shock when confronted with his latest film, Shit Year (2011), a mature work with a distinct, idiosyncratic approach to difficult questions.

The film is ostensibly about Colleen West (Ellen Barkin), a middle-aged actress retiring from the industry and settling into a life of intensive self-isolation in a forest cabin. This deceptively simple premise serves as a convincing departure point for a prolonged meditation on solitude: Shit Year shows the ways one can become a victim of seclusion while embracing its apparent freedoms—the process is satirized brilliantly as we watch West slowly cave in to friendship with an eccentric chatterbox neighbor when she would clearly rather be left alone—as well as the vocational manias that naturally come when one’s career has been devoted to becoming other people. In West’s case, her doomed affair with a twenty-two-year-old actor, Harvey (Luke Grimes), that endured throughout her final acting foray becomes the lingering stain on her conscience. It is not only her failure to find a satisfying resolution to the fling with Harvey that haunts her, but the existential symbolism of that failure: Harvey becomes for West a distant idol of her own waning vitality and desire.

Much of the film’s strength can be readily located in Barkin’s performance; she carries herself valiantly (she is never really offscreen) through a montage of flashbacks, dream sequences, and fantasies, accompanied by the frequent sound collages that Archer has incorporated throughout the film. These visual tactics scramble the film’s temporal continuity and enforce the illusion of living within the central character’s thoughts and motions as she goes about her day. The director’s choice to shoot the film in black-and-white celluloid further contributes to the timeless feel.

“Can you confirm that this is the real deal?” a television interviewer asks her, in regard to her retirement plans. West laughs before replying, “Real. Deal. I hate those two words together.” Ultimately, the subject of Shit Year is reconciliation: the lifelong process of learning to agree with the “real deal” that existence entails.

Shit Year opens Wednesday, September 21 at the IFC Center in New York.

Travis Jeppesen