Screening exclusively at Chicago’s Facets Cinematheque is Nathan Silver’s new film, Thirst Street (Recommended). Silver blipped on my radar back in 2014 for his film Uncertain Terms. It’s an intriguing curio from a filmmaker still finding his way, though the elements of something great stewed beneath its surface (his use of actress Tallie Medel was especially provocative). I was more impressed with his follow-up, Stinking Heaven, featuring Hannah Gross of Mindhunter fame. Many of the preoccupations and anxious rhythms that were a highlight of Uncertain Terms were more carefully calibrated and authentic in Stinking Heaven, even if it remained a little rough around the edges. But with Thirst Street, I’m seeing a filmmaker truly cultivate his worldview. Not only is Thirst Street a formal zenith in Silver’s filmography, but it also features one of the best performances of the year.
The film begins with a dynamic sequence that finds Gina (Lindsay Burdge), an airline stewardess, returning home to find that her husband has committed suicide. There’s a lot going on in this opening passage, from Anjelica Huston drolly narrating the sequence to Sean Price William’s vivid photography capturing the film’s deranged, off-kilter tone. It’s impossibly provocative, as Silver alludes to the emotionally messy and frequently nonsensical rhythms of Dario Argento and Alan Rudolph from one shot to the next. But it all returns to Burdge, who molds this emotionally complex puddle into something a little familiar. She manages a recognizable tenor of grief, inadequacy, and anxiety throughout her performance and it’s what makes Thirst Street so compulsively, if not horrifyingly, watchable.
As the film proceeds, we find Gina and her colleagues on a layover in Paris, where a friend bribes a fortuneteller for a favorable reading. The fortuneteller advises Gina that she’ll come across a man with “something in his eye”, which leads her to a bartender named to Jérôme (Damien Bonnard). That “something” ends up being conjunctivitis, which Jérôme passes onto Gina as they hook-up, and is just the start of a series of cruel jokes that Gina endures. Whether it be her misreading Jérôme as a potential partner or her persistent social and cultural miscues as she moves to Paris, Gina’s misfortunes pile.
A film of this sort can register as overtly cruel or exploitative, but rather than positioning Gina as a passive figure absorbing these savage blows to her ego, she functions with a measure of agency, where grief informs her responses. It recalls a performance like Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy, where you gather that that Gina’s missteps are a product of her own wounded psyche. It’s all in tone and tempo, really, as Silver and Burdge maintain the sort of tonal dissonance that this sort of film requires, in what so frequently feels like a house of cards on the cusp of tipping over. It may be discomforting, but there’s no denying that it’s persuasive, authentic, and remarkably true.