Oliver Laxe’s brilliant Fire Will Come (currently streaming online in virtual cinemas) opens with an unease that lingers long after the images that inspired it — crowded, quiet, as natural as they are unearthly — have passed us by. A sublime harbinger of the subtle violences to come. Without preface or warning, we’re in a thick forest spooked with fog and unknowing. The camera moves slowly and reveals little at first but the terrain, tracking along the forest floor, then hovering eerily through and above it all, soaking up the ridge and curl of the world below. It is night. But in moments so brief and subtle you might think you imagined them, there are dashes of light.
When the source of that light is clarified, it’s by way of a sound — a mechanical rumbling that arises from within the forest. The trees begin to fall: The forest is being felled. The machines, when we finally see them, appear to us as monsters, giant and yellow, jagged where the forest otherwise appears plush, with lights for eyes and giant claws, and a terrifying industrial roaring in their throats. There’s a plummeting sense of indignity to it — to the way they go about their business so impersonally. We cannot see the people in them. It should come as a relief, then, for this brief and masterfully evocative scene to end on a single tree, our view closed in its rigid beauty. Yet even this tree, as undeniably majestic as it is gnarled and peculiar, proves disconcerting.
Fire Will Come is a movie about a middle-aged man named Amador (Amador Arias), who’s just finished serving a two-year sentence in prison for arson. Our introduction to the man is by way of a heavy stack of files being passed between officials upon his release. “Is this the pyromaniac?” one asks. Yes — this is the man who set a forest on fire. He’s out on parole and returning home to a village in Galicia, a hilly, autonomous community at the northwestern-most tip of Spain. That’s where his mother, Benedicta (Benedicta Sánchez), still resides. (Like everyone else here, these actors play characters named for themselves.) He’s shrouded in hesitant loneliness, a fact noticeably evoked in the wide-open, wet images Laxe uses to introduce him. Galicia is a coastal land of hills and mountain ridges; from the impression left by this movie, you’d think it were also a land with only one road traveling through it. The village itself could be alienatingly remote, or it could be beautiful for being so singular. It all seems to depend on how the sun catches it — and on how the film wants us to see it, and by association, this man.
The opening stretch of Laxe’s film follows Amador’s slow reintegration into the community, which is indeed slow. He and his mother spend their days tending to their cattle; when they attend a funeral, someone jokingly asks him, “Got a light?“ It’s not much of a joke. Meanwhile Amador’s working life alongside his mother, to whom this movie also belongs, in many ways, is built on evocative contrasts. Compare Benedicta with her cattle — a tiny fire engine of a woman, full of motherly fury and command — versus the Benedicta who soft-shoes around her errant, unpredictable son. Compare those to the Benedicta who takes a moment out in the woods to harbor herself from the rain (and likely not just that) by hiding in the nooks of a half-burnt tree. And now compare her to the other woman that becomes a small staple of Amador’s life, a local veterinarian named Elena (Elena Fernández), who wasn’t around when he set the fires. When one of the cattle falls ill, Elena’s the one they call. The doctor and Amador bond briefly over Leonard Cohen. She eventually hears about the fires when someone warns her about him. She does not care.
This is not the bloom of a romance. But slyly, Laxe gives us just enough of this thread, and just enough of a sense of Amador’s possible rehabilitation and return to normalcy, in scenes just beautiful enough, to make you anticipate otherwise. But the director is setting the groundwork for something harder to define, teasing it out bit by bit in scenes whose primary concerns are always landscapes, whether the inner ones of Amador or the external world of Galicia’s rolling, verdant countryside. These scenes aren’t an outright exercise in misdirection; they harbor … something. A note of portent, a foggy despair, even when the sun is out, even when Amador shares in moments of beauty.
When the tone of all of this shifts, a viewer might be inclined to feel that they ought to have seen those shifts coming. At only 80 minutes and change, Fire Will Come is slim, distilled and as sharp as a shiv to the gut. It is also just as quiet in its shock — replete with a sense of inner chaos that makes sense and feels more obviously imminent only in retrospect. The look of the film has a lot to do with this: Working in 16mm, cinematographer Mauro Herce generates images that have a mesmerizing weight and glide to them. The country roads emerge, through the fog and open-ended invitations of the landscape, like cracks rippling through the film’s emotional concrete. Amador’s face, too, is alive with stories, with that sharp decline in his nose and those rigid lines, the steely reserve behind his eyes. All of which Herce uses to paint his bitter pictures. And then there is the heightened sight of Galicia writ large, in which brambles and foliage abound — appropriately and ironically, given Amador’s crime.
Fire Will Come establishes itself, from its very opening images, as a furious contest between man and nature, and the effect is, in part, to make you understand some of the sentiment behind what becomes this movie’s unexpected central tension. Trees are being felled in that opening sequence, remember. The camera’s creeping reveal of the forest and what’s happening within feels, in retrospect, not just haunted, but like the slow, angular arc of a grimace. The Paris-born Laxe, whose parents were Galician immigrants, spent formative years in these hills, so it only makes sense that the film that follows doesn’t become a mere study of one man’s solitude and anger. (And Amador’s solitude comes with an asterisk. Like Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, another of this year’s very best releases, this movie has great costars in its cattle — and in Amador’s dog.)
The movie finds its center, rather, in the happenstance events which, massaged carefully into drama by Laxe and his actors, reveal their importance only gradually. A sick steer; a river clogged. Foliage that’s begun to dry up and die out — that is, if it’s not getting cut down. Amador believes that the sickness afflicting the trees is the result of an intrusion: a cancer (his word) begotten of the trucks that now drive through, and the tourists that are sure to follow. In one scene, with an unsettling lack of self-awareness, he says the forest looks as if those sick trees had been burnt. In the moment, it’s an observation. By the end of the film, it feels like a threat.
It isn’t really a spoiler to say that this film lives up to the promise of its title. It’s the title, after all. But fire, literal and psychological, takes hold of this movie. Knowing that it comes, you are nevertheless not prepared. How could you be? Laxe’s dramatic faculties are nimble and bounteous, as he’s shown time and again in films like Mimosas (2016) and You Are All Captains (2010). But this a film in which the spirit of a man, and a place, hang in the balance. An ethical chasm opens up in the movie, ripping through the veneer of unspoken assumptions and understandings that, suddenly and damagingly, are finally uttered. Fire Will Come is a movie that will go down easy for the right viewer, a movie strangely energized by an unexpected dash of suspense. But the film’s ideas, the questions it sends aloft as we watch, remain stuck in our throats. There are barbs among those brambles. Rare is the filmmaker like Laxe who’s not only willing, but able, to set our minds afire.