The Giant is a distinctly American film that recalls many of the staples of impressionist gothic fiction from the early twentieth century. Naturally, the phrase ‘distinctly American’ has a multitude of meanings, and while the film -a feature debut written and directed by Virginia native David Raboy- ostensibly occupies the de facto genres of the murder mystery and the ‘coming-of-age’ story, its sensibilities reside in the literary tradition of Southern Gothic. Definitions of Southern Gothic are as naturally diverse, a common one being fiction that embarks on a dark romanticist view of the world depicting a present time reckoning with its past. William Faulkner famously wrote that “memory believes before knowing remembers,” implying that the past exists alongside with and informs one’s present, and never goes away. The film’s visual approach to the collapse of the protagonist’s past and present distinguish it among canonical American films inhabiting Southern Gothic conventions -a distant cousin in that regard being Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991).
Like Faulkner, the structure of Raboy’s film is largely a free association made up of fragments that comprise what in filmic terms might connote a memory. The Giant made its world premiere in the Discovery program at the Toronto International Film Festival to relatively little fanfare (no more than fifteen people attended one press and industry screening), and early receipts of the film by both critics and audiences have described the film as “frustrating,” “confusing,” or “all visuals and no narrative.” This is perhaps due to the fragmented register in which Raboy works, since the narrative, though composed of disparate events, is relatively simple. The film takes place during the summer in a small town in Georgia, opening with the suicide of a woman, who is later revealed to be the mother of a recent high school graduate Charlotte (Odessa Young). A series of murders occur at once with the entrance of Charlotte’s former boyfriend Joe (Ben Schnetzer) long after having disappeared. At the same time, Charlotte is haunted by dreams (or memories, or visions) of her childhood home, now abandoned, and of a mysterious giant following her.
The narrative, or more specifically the plot resolution, is largely unimportant, however, as is the specific ‘significance’ of the titular giant, which the film makes clear is meant to be read figuratively and not literally. The frustration among viewers has more to do perhaps with the film’s figurative film language, specifically with how it provides only impressions of several mysteries -the murders, the dreams, the giant- and with how the characters always know -or seem to know- more than the viewer. ‘Solving the mystery’ is arguably not the point, while accepting that certain mysteries are not ‘solvable’ -and that by extension certain events cannot be adequately explained but only understood as aspects of mneme- is. Fittingly, Raboy’s film began production after the producer’s wife read the script and had a dream about it.
Narratively, The Giant recalls aspects of Southern Gothic in that its settings and characters are often haunted, but not by something sinister by necessity. Charlotte warns her best friend Olivia (Madelyn Cline) that they must leave their town and that something is about to happen -that ‘something’ the film leaves ambiguous. Raboy finds parallels between the conventions of Southern Gothic fiction and the typical coming-of-age story, namely in its characters’ uncertainty about the future, which in turn causes the landscape to temporally fold in on itself. Sequences follow Charlotte ambling through her old house, figuratively searching for her mother. One might interpret the imagined giant as a sense of grief or guilt over her mother’s death when seen in light of folkways of the American southeast. For instance, there are several variations of a Cherokee legend involving a race of giants, including a story of a giant hunter who periodically brings game to the home of a mother and daughter, but only at night and always out of sight of the mother. The titular giant in Raboy’s film, then, takes on an element of folklore in that it appears only to Charlotte, and only in darkness.
Darkness and imperceptibility.
When reading The Giant strictly as a visual text rather than a narrative one, numerous images and sounds distinctive to the rural and southern United States emerge: Fireworks on the street curb, pickup trucks carrying groups of teenagers, swimming at the lake, a state fair. At first glance, it is tempting to draw comparisons to Terrence Malick in the film’s use of slow motion and voiceover, yet those comparisons are largely superficial given that Raboy’s intentions are, upon scrutiny, divorced almost entirely from those of Malick or the like. If forced to make a comparison, The Giant has more in common with the works of John Sayles or James Benning, particularly Benning’s Landscape Suicide (1986) in its impressionistic view of a murder in the American south as part of a more expansive and complex -and therefore more mysterious- setting. The Giant is about, in Raboy’s words, “darkness and imperceptibility.” It was shot on 35mm, a format that dictates the sparseness of the film’s imagery. The majority of the film takes place at night or at dusk, with fireworks, candles, and the lights of fair rides casting only wan pools of light, while augmented shutter speeds stretch the plumes of candles and double exposure shots of Charlotte and Joe together suggest their shared past. The film objects that comprise the town itself -the houses, the lake, the roads- are all portrayed against the backdrop of a void. Characters appear suddenly as apparitions as they enter rooms, lit by a single distant light source. Trucks disappear down roads into total darkness. Visually, the film suggests a landscape that has no temporal beginning or end, explicated by an exchange between Charlotte and Joe:
“Where are we going?”
“Why don’t we find out.”
Sound design in The Giant functions in a similar manner. In the film’s final act, where the characters gather at Charlotte’s old house for a party, Olivia disappears. Charlotte calls her cel phone several times, getting Olivia’s voicemail recording each time, though with each call Olivia’s voice on the recording grows more and more troubled. Since voice recordings do not inexplicably change when replayed, the sequence demands that the viewer accept the subjective visual and aural lenses through which the film sees events. Likewise, projected 35mm film displays a fuzziness and graininess relative to newer digital film, connoting not just Charlotte’s past existing alongside her present but also a literal lack of ‘clarity’ or ‘sharpness’ in its presentation. Both sound and image suggest that the film does not portray events in themselves, but as memory fragments, which are persistent and yet the product of change over time.