Pit Stop

Pit Stop ★★★½

Review from Next Projection

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.” William Edward Hickson’s words could almost be tailor made for director Yen Tan, whose fourth feature Pit Stop follows eleven years after his earnest but errant debut Happy Birthday, and attests the significant artistic evolution he has evidently undergone in the interim period. He has tried, tried, tried again, and here he has succeeded wildly in channelling the recurrent gay themes of his work through expressive, experienced direction to deliver a film of formidable emotional resonance.

Crucial to the impact of Tan’s story is the naturalism of his leads: Bill Heck and Marcus DeAnda play Gabe and Ernesto, romantically troubled gay men on opposite sides of a Texan town, with enduring allure. There’s a depth of humanity to each man’s face that Tan is happy to allow tell the story in dialogue’s stead, gestures largely substituted for words in communicating the brooding depths of their emotions. Living still with his ex-wife and young daughter, Gabe offers with his share of the narrative an interesting undercurrent on family dynamics, a theme that—like the film’s best aspects—goes largely unspoken. Ernesto, meanwhile, shares his home with the boyfriend from whom he has recently split, a similarly strange domestic arrangement that strengthens the backdrop of family-as-community against which these protagonists are most strongly developed.

Pit Stop’s title has clear repercussions when considered in light of these men’s situations: stilted in positions from which they really should—really need to—move on, their efforts to take a turn at this crossroads in life is the integral tension from which the drama is forged. And oh, what drama it is, as much born of Tan’s comprehensive control of the film’s visual and aural composition as of Heck and DeAnda’s terrific performances. Often shooting through doorways in a manner evocative of John Ford’s framing, Tan and mononymic cinematographer Hutch make visibly manifest the psychological alienation of their characters. Curtis Heath’s simplistic score, evocative to the last, somehow both drowns out the silences and amplifies them, his contemplative chords making all the more pronounced the lack of all other sound.

To focus excessively on the quietude of the film is perhaps to exaggerate its expressionism: Tan is not adverse to dialogue; indeed, a number of scenes boast deeply moving moments of speech, none more so than that when an emotional Ernesto breaks down at the bedside of a comatose ex-boyfriend. He is, though, genuinely talented at showing rather than telling, as in a touching early scene where Gabe’s dog simply sits compassionately by his side in a manner any caninophile will doubtlessly have experienced themselves. It’s familiarities like these at which the movie most excels: those instances of extraordinary empathy, where we find ourselves compulsively compelled to relate to these characters, afflicted as they are by the fear and loneliness universal to human experience.

Like its characters, however, Pit Stop is far from perfect. At times rough around the edges, its editing serves sometimes to distract with a displeasing cut, as too can the omnipresent darkness of its palette grow wearisome. Its subplots, whether that of the comatose ex or Gabe’s ex-wife’s own romantic efforts, are functional, if never quite fluid. Yet it speaks to the skills of the film’s cast and crew that the more it progresses, and the greater our entanglement in these lives grows, the less attention we pay to the drawbacks. In the movie’s pitch-perfect—and rather inevitable—conclusion, an intensely passionate sex scene as fine as cinema has seen, we see these characters consumed in a climax far more emotional than it is physical. They, like us as we watch, are overwhelmed in a moment of rare joy, through which all such negativity pales to insignificance.