In an early scene in Columbus, the two main characters Jin (John Cho) and Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) walk on opposite sides of a fence having a quiet, reverent introductory conversation. It’s one of the first in a series of such conversations that will play out during the rest of the film as the two grow accustomed to each other’s personality.
The film is attuned to the delicacies and rhythms of conversation, overflowing with perception, depth and the oft-forgotten method of characters simply growing before our eyes. The way other films may employ bombastic action spectacles to break up the monotony of narrative, Columbus creates two people walking and talking (and even one manic dance sequence) as its mini set pieces. It’s one of the more refreshing and moving pieces of acting one will see on-screen all year.
However, the relationship that develops between 40-plus Jin and 19-something Casey is far from romantic. There are echoes of infatuation on her part and envy of youth on his part, but writer-directer Kogonada (making his feature length debut here) wisely avoids making it about carnality. Instead, it’s about finding someone in an extreme state of anomie.
Returning to Columbus, Indiana when his father collapses and falls into a coma, Jin spends his days wandering around town. It’s inferred his relationship with his father is far from perfect, hanging around solely for the wanted continuation of a relationship with his father’s assistant, Eleanor (Parker Posey).
Casey also exists in a static sense of self. Clinging to her recovering addict mother (Michelle Forbes) and hovering uneasily around a local library co-worker Gabriel (Rory Culkin), she is one of the last of her class still living in the city, as one cringe-worthy interaction with a fellow student early in the film specifies.
It’s on one of these walks for Jin and one of her usual car-hood-lost-in-thought moments for Casey that the two strike up a friendship. First, their conversations develop around architecture. Intensely bright about the subject, Casey recognizes Jin’s father as an esteemed local architecture professor. She wants to show him some of her favorite buildings around town. Jin goes along, despite loudly expressing his disdain for the subject.
As each building offers another chance for the pair to connect, Columbus hooks its intelligent claws into you and draws you in closer to these subtly hurt individuals. Richardson, in particular, gives a monumental performance, revealing etches of her conflicted character through the way she carries herself and her reactions to Jin’s probing questions. It’s also intelligent for what it doesn’t show. During one pivotal moment, filmmaker Kogonada has Jin ask a very important question to Casey and we see her reaction from inside the building’s plate glass window, and , in silence, we only see her mouth the words. We may not be able to hear what she says, but her face tells the entire story.
Like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) or Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010), Columbus belongs in that rarefied class of movies that works on a different level. The dialogue and achingly true interaction between two people through that dialogue is the film. In fact, all else is kept at a remove. The hospital room where Jin’s dad lies … the full reasons for Eleanor and Gabriel’s timely rejection of them … most of the interiors of the buildings Jin and Casey use as the backdrop to their roving talks … they slowly recede into the background as Jin and Casey use each other to heal during a trying time in their lives.
I said in the beginning that Columbus doesn’t develop like a typical love story, but the emotions that roar in the film’s finale do reverberate like the passions of two lovers … just not in the usual sense. Like everything else in this breathtaking film, it’s a hushed and deeply felt one. Like the shot behind a plate glass window, we don’t always need the obvious to be spelled out for us. In fact, beauty often lies in the unsaid and Columbus is brimming with that beauty.
Columbus opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, September 29 at the Landmark Magnolia.