Movies · Reviews

‘Bokeh’ Is Devastatingly Beautiful and Beautifully Devastating

By  · Published on April 6th, 2017

If you have to be depressed and alone somewhere there are far worse places to go than Iceland.

Isolation can be a terrifying experience. The feeling that you’re all alone in the world is frightening even in a metaphorical sense, but to realize that you’re quite literally alone? That no one – stranger or loved one alike – is going to be there for you? It’s the makings of a nightmare.

Jenai (Maika Monroe) and Riley (Matt O’Leary) at least have each other when the rest of the planet’s human population suddenly disappears. Or do they?

The young couple have come to Iceland for a vacation away from the bustle of life, and they’re floored by the island country’s endless beauty. They interact with the locals, get busy in hot springs, and strengthen the love they feel for each other. The vacation ends early one morning when they awake to discover the town is empty. The world seems no better off as live broadcasts cease, phone calls and emails back home go unanswered, and they’re at a loss as to what exactly is happening. If a plague, where are the bodies? If alien abductions, where are the ships? If the rapture, well what are the odds that they’re the only two unworthy souls on Earth?

As days and weeks pass, the pair move from searching for answers to finding ways to stay alive. They can’t get back home, food is a finite resource on the island, and their future is uncertain. Beyond mere survival though, the two find themselves struggling with the reason behind their shared isolation and what it means to each of them.

Writers/directors Geoffrey Orthwein and Andrew Sullivan deliver a feature debut with Bokeh that’s one part Icelandic tourism video, one part extended Twilight Zone episode, and one part existential exploration of our core beliefs and truths. It’s a beautifully-filmed look at personal themes both important and uncomfortable, and the end result is a film that resembles an engaging dream every bit as much as it does a harrowing nightmare.

The term “bokeh” is from photography and refers to the blurred, out-of-focus parts of a picture. It’s guaranteed to be a double-edged sword of sorts as some viewers will turn it around onto the entirety of the film itself – “The story lacks focus!” – but they’ll be missing its actual application here. Iceland is an effortlessly attractive place to the eye, and cinematographer Joe Lindsay translates it directly to the screen offering mind-blowing landscapes and stunning natural wonders alongside the human element. Within that picture we’re meant to stay on the young couple, and their reality and situation is crystal clear. They’re in love, they’re hopeful, and they see a future, but this event throws it all into disarray.

Their reaction towards and journey through dealing with the situation probably falls along lines similar to what most people would experience. Fear, confusion, awe, a celebratory attempt to make the best of things, and the eventual crushing weight of reality. The film isn’t all that interested in providing answers, and that uncertainty – that blurriness – is yet another of its strengths.

It’s an intimate tale, remarkably so for a film about the disappearance of humanity, and as Jenai and Riley struggle together and individually viewers will see themselves in these moments. Some will lean towards her approach, one fueled by past religious upbringing and conviction as to its meaning, while others will side with Riley’s more nihilistic, “we’ll never know” interpretation. Both are as right as they are wrong.

Monroe and O’Leary are the film’s sole performers for most of its running time, and they do equally strong work convincing viewers of both their love for each other and their fight to resist falling apart. We’re with them every step of the way, from the joyous freedom of vacation through the pained reality that becomes their new normal. The film moves at a very deliberate pace, and its interest in human revelations over narrative ones might test some viewers, but the journey is well worth the patience required.

Bokeh is continually pleasing to the eyes even as it challenges the heart and mind, and while it’ll leave you with a desire to visit Iceland it suggests you may want to save some money by making it a one-way ticket.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.