It’s not like The National need to reinvent themselves. But their new collaboration with filmmaker Mike Mills (Beginners, 20th Century Women) brings some fresh colour into their much-loved repertoire of dark romanticism and ruminations on modern male anxieties. Infused with a cornucopia of artistic input and strong female presences, I Am Easy To Find is a touching fusion of National classics like gripping-you-by-the-guts sound and superb lyrics together with new perspectives, delicious visuals and one hell of a lead performance.
The quasi-silent film opens with a short passage of female a-cappella voices before Matt Berninger’s raw baritone breaks through. It follows a meditative voyage with scarce dialogue across snapshots of an ordinary woman’s life from birth to death. But while other people around her age, the protagonist remains the same, suggesting that our interior selves don’t change throughout our lives. We accompany the nameless girl/woman as she experiences her first kiss, her period, alienation at work, fights with her husband, the menopause. At times, a person who left a mark in her life is introduced in a frontal full-body shot (“Emily Dranso, her first kiss”). This ebb and flow is interspersed with heartfelt contributions from guest vocalists like Lisa Hannigan, This is the Kit’s Kate Stables and The National’s Bryce Dessner’s wife Pauline de Lassus.
Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is the magic muscle of the film here: at times curled up like a baby mesmerised by the up-and-down of her toes, then sitting down gingerly by a table with octogenarian fragility, Vikander masters her visceral body language convincingly to carry her character through all ages. When she, supposedly aged three, stands outside her family house calling for her mum, the boredom and simultaneous ready-for-actionness of her arms and legs make her look exactly like my three-year-old neighbour from downstairs.
Apart from bringing in Vikander, long-term National fan Mills rummaged for other why-not-give-it-a-go ideas in his box of wonders – with varying success: while the inclusion of the ethereal Brooklyn Youth Chorus added a Terrence Malick-esque touch to The National’s trademark guitars, the block colour panels that cut through the narrative are somewhat alienating and don’t seem to say much (or just blurt out ‘artsy!’). Similarly, the concise subtitles Mills wrote to accompany life stages of Vikander’s character (“A new best friend”, “Feeling capable; she is good at work”) appear redundant considering Vikander’s performance speaks for itself and often distract from Berninger’s and the Dessner twins’ powerful lyrics. Another nod to Malick is Daniel Voldheim’s atmospheric black-and-white cinematography, which features skilful focus-pulling handled with a whisper’s intimacy. Never quite a music video, never quite a film, this project feels like The National have poked their head out of their beautiful cocoon to put out their feelers in search of something more.
I Am Easy to Find is available for free on Youtube and here (which includes a commentary by Mills, Berninger and his wife and co-songwriter Carin Besser)