As film appreciation has continued to grow in the last few decades or so, in part due to Blu-Rays, DVDs, and streaming, which have spawned social media film cultures and bubbles, you can now spot more and more aspiring independent filmmakers showcasing their influences just as you can more modern film buffs. One of the biggest influences across the board from many modern filmmakers is Terrence Malick, the poetic master filmmaker who continues to be celebrated to this day for his elliptical style. Such films as Badlands, Days of Heaven, A Thin Red Line, and The Tree of Life are considered his strongest films and are clearly his most influential. You can see his visual touches have inspired many modern filmmakers, such as Christopher Nolan, Alejando G. Iñárritu, Chloe Zhao, David Lowery, Sean Baker, and older David Gordon Greene indies. Now you can see Malick’s style resurface in small indies, including Raven Jackson’s debut feature All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt—a film of many ravishing images stuck in a film’s tone and poetic rhythm that is very limited in scope and narrative drive. While the film aesthetically unravels like Malick’s most recent films, Jackson’s film fails to leave an emotional or philosophical impact.
It pains me to say, but Malick’s style has been growing exhausting and one-note ever since To the Wonder. While it’s nice to see filmmakers being inspired, Malick’s style has always reached levels of being self-parodic alone, and All Dirt Roads just feels like a broken-record cover of Malick with touches of Julie Dash. Rehashing more or less the same editing techniques and visual touches and montages of human memory that consist of human flesh, nature, and water over and over, Raven Jackson might want to reconsider reshaping her style or at least bring more narrative drive into her next film.
Courtesy A24 Films
The slight narrative, as skimpy as it is, is composed of fragmented memories of the life of Mack (played by Charleen McClure, Kaylee Nichole Johnson, and Sainab Jah at various ages), which visually explores her life growing up in Mississippi, ranging from her childhood through her adult years. Jackson explores her friendships, relationships, and love encounters, and we get glimpses of her close sister, Josie (Jayah Henry as a child and Moses Ingram as an adult). The film’s plot sounds like Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight on paper (who also serves as producer), but the chronology of the memories feels too foggy and inactive to be fully invested. Jackson’s poetic style deserves to be commended for evenly spreading out the essence of time, but even with all the stunning shots and images, this is a film that ends up feeling subpar and dramatically unsatisfying.
While we see Mack’s memories unfold, some of the strongest elements in the film involve quick snippets of her father, Isaiah (Chris Chalk), who teaches the young Mack and Josie how to swim as Jackson observes how traditions are passed down from generations. The film cuts away, and we are now following Mack in her young adult years, where she reconnects with a childhood friend, Wood (Preston McDowell), in which Mack becomes pregnant herself, and Jackson sets the motions in how her is a fleeting portrait of time and the cycles of life.
Courtesy A24 Films
The missteps aren’t Jackson’s familiar visual style or themes, as they hint at being organic and enthralling. However, it’s style overwhelms all attempts to be fully involved in a life lived. Contrary to Malick’s own The Tree of Life or Jenkin’s Moonlight, where the narrative slows down, eventually unwinds, and never immerses the viewer to feel the empathy on display. We never exactly feel the ordinary feelings of romance, anger, fear, heartbreak, and hope that just feel surface-level due to Jackson’s secondhand style, which becomes sensory overload. Granted, there are some memorable moments in the film, from hands touching the water to a baby being bathed in a sink and Mack and Jose’s house being burned down. There are also many long shots of many hugs that echo the long-take kiss in Carlos Raygada’s Silent Light, which Jenkins is also a huge champion of. Unlike Silent Light, the characters in Jackson’s film feel more like postures than credible characters.
While it’s refreshing to see more or more films about the Black female experience, I have many reasons to believe Raven Jackson has a lot of strong potential as a filmmaker. If she could just get beyond her overt Malick inspirations and build up a stronger emotional tempo in her films, her work would feel more transcendent. While the film has a hypnotic pull to put you in a trance, it never fully ignites due to its sluggish execution. I had the opportunity to catch this film at the New York Film Festival, and you can sense the audience was very quiet and patient. The film is just over 90 minutes and about 100 minutes shorter than Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 3-hour, 20-minute intimate draw About Dry Grasses (Review coming in 2024), which also played at the festival, but somehow it felt just as long, if not even longer. With that, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt holds merit for its visual artistry, but it’s just not enough to boost this film.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is now playing in limited theaters