Film Review: Pilgrim Song

<i>Tedium on the Trail </i>could be the alternative title for this logy trek through the woods.

If you loved Kelly Reichardt ‘s Old Joy, then Pilgrim Song, also directed by a woman, Martha Stephens, will be right up your alley, although even less happens here. The pilgrim we’re now concerned with is James (Timothy Morton), who has just lost his job teaching music and decides to do the Sheltowee Trace Trail trek in Kentucky. He figures he will miss the comforts of home, along with his girlfriend (Karrie Crouse), but they haven’t been getting along too well anyway, and the siren song of the road proves too irresistible.

The viewer need not fear that James will encounter any of those scary rapist hillbillies who made John Boorman’s Deliverance such a modern horror story, for everything that goes on in the film is as benign as the after-effect of a strong toke of pot (which a number of the characters indulge in). The folks he meets up with are more quirky than menacing, like an old park ranger who waxes country-lyrical about the shape of women’s behinds or the denizens of a hoedown who get off on the same kind of fiddle-ridden ditties James himself enjoys playing. There, he encounters a girl he hooks up with after playing “Spin the Bottle,” which is just about the most assertive thing he does in the film’s eyelid-dragging 113-minute running time.

That aforementioned benign quality is, one supposes, the main appeal of this picaresque idyll, but it is also its fatal weakness. James is such an amiable, if totally self-involved, blank of a character that it will be difficult for the less indulgent among us to become truly involved in his journey, despite the often invigoratingly beautiful sylvan photography of Alexander Sablow, which does make the most of the Moonshine State’s virgin forest terrain. Tending an injured ankle, James runs into a single father and young son (Bryan Marshall and Harrison Cole) who are so much more alive and expressive than he is that you wish the director would dump him and follow these two instead.

Morton does, however, have one of the longest sustained male frontal nude scenes in film history—perhaps the director’s answer to a century of cinematic female objectification—which will probably be her movie’s main claim to distinction.