All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt
This tone poem spanning the life of a woman from girlhood to grandmother lacks any kind of narrative shape -- a dreadfully slow affair that tries to shorthand imagery for true emotion.
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“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” is the quintessential critics’ film.
That is to say, professional film watchers will like it a whole lot more than the people who actually buy tickets to movies. I didn’t even have to look it up on Rotten Tomatoes or other rating sites to know audiences rate it much lower than critics — a flip of the usual dynamic.
It’s a lovely and lyrical film from writer/director Raven Jackson that spans the life of a Black woman from girlhood to grandmother. It’s also completely lacking any kind of narrative shape whatsoever. It jumps around in time and place without any sense of logic, leaving us confused as to what has happened — or is even happening as we watch it.
The result is a dreadfully slow affair more concerned with visuals than emotion. Certainly, storytelling is not any kind of priority.
Admirers will fawn over it as “pure cinema.” This is something you hear when a movie looks good but has nothing to say. It’s imagery for imagery’s own sake.
“Salt” does indeed boast many compelling shots of the Mississippi marshlands where the protagonist, Mackenzie (Mack), grows to maturity. (Cinematography by Jomo Fray.) Even when the mise-en-scène isn’t that spectacular, the filmmakers seem intent on substituting quality with quantity, as scenes will linger on and on for turgid, exhausting durations.
I often felt like Jackson was trying to out-Terrence Malick Terrence Malick, to name another celebrated filmmaker often accused of fetishizing his own painterly shots over assembling them into any kind of cohesive whole. (I know, because I’m one of his chief accusers.)
Let’s put things in more concrete terms.
In “Salt” there is a hug that lasts five minutes. That’s it, just two people embracing. Barely a word is spoken; we just see their hands grasping each other’s backs, a cheek sliding up and down a shoulder, a few tears trickling just so. That goes on. For. Five. Minutes.
I suppose this should be an amazing, touching human moment. Two people, Mack as a teen girl and a slightly older boy. Clearly they are in love. Clearly something has come between them to make them sad and express their yearning in this way. I could theoretically see how a hug like this could be the culmination of a long and winding road of their relationship story.
Except we never see that relationship. All we see is the hug. So we have no idea why it is so important. As such, its emotional impact is minimal — especially as our patience wears thin.
This movie is almost like shorthand, or even acronym, for real human connections and emotions. Instead of doing the long, hard work of fleshing out these characters and telling their story, Jackson simply deposits them in a field or beside a lake or in a room, where we watch them say nothing much, do nothing much, occasionally stare into each other’s eyes as if to create a meaning behind it out of thin air.
Mack is played mostly by Charleen McClure as a teen, some by Kaylee Nicole Johnson as a girl, a little bit by Zainab Jah as an older woman. Her most important relationship is with Josie, possibly her sister or best friend, played by Moses Ingram as a woman and Jayah Henry as a girl.
Sheila Atim portrays their mother, imperial and statuesque. Preston McDowell and Reginald Helms Jr. play Mack’s love interest in younger and older iterations, respectively.
I will say the performances are invested and evocative. Despite not having much to say or do, the thespians delve deeply into creating a screen presence for their characters. They are also challenged in not getting a lot of face time, as Jackson’s camera seems more drawn to close-ups of their hands and hair.
(At the peak of my restlessness, I began to mentally label this “The Hands Movie.”)
What happens in “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt?” It’s hard to say. A tragedy befalls the family. Mack will have a baby girl of her own. Some kind of understanding about the child is reached with Josie. There’s that damn mysterious hug. It’s all jumbled up, out of order — lacking any order, really.
Maybe you’ll make a better crack at deciphering it than me.
They say sometimes a touch or a glance conveys more than words every could. But you’ve got to have some words to contextualize what that moment means. Otherwise it’s just a snapshot — and movies are, by definition, moving pictures. This one doesn’t move very much.
Honestly, I think a lot of critics are just plain afraid to say they think this movie is very beautiful, and very boring. I’m not.