Eva (Kiernan Shipka, of “Mad Men” and, if Jon Hamm has his way, that Sally Draper spin-off) and Zac (Timothée Chalamet) are brother and sister. They have the ability to transport over short distances, to disappear in a puff of smoke and reappear a few yards away. This is a gift they primarily use, as many tweens surely would, to sneak out of the house at night. Their family lives off the land — churning butter, chopping wood, that sort of thing — and one might assume this is all taking place in the nineteenth century until an airplane flies overhead. Their overbearing father, who fears their power and blames it for their mother’s mysterious illness, has literally built a wall between his family and the outside world, a massive wooden wall, much too high to scale. Is the wall keeping something out or keeping Eva and Zac in?
Andrew Droz Palermo, making his fiction directing debut after co-directing the highly regarded documentary “Rich Hill,” approaches this story in a dreamy, lyrical style with a persistent sense of dread beneath the languor. Palermo’s Malickian magic-hour photography and ominous ambient score carry a lot of the dramatic weight, as do Shipka and Chalamet, covering over the film’s rather old-hat family dynamics — domineering father, long-suffering mother, one child rebellious, the other fearful (though Palermo does earn points for at least switching the genders here, making Eva the one who instigates minor rebellions against their father). Practically every movie about a rural family falls into this same mold.
But while the film’s dramatic trajectory is a little strained, One & Two remains intriguing to the last because of Palermo’s ability to create a sense of mystery. Palermo’s visual style (amply assisted by cinematographer Autumn Durald) may be largely borrowed from Malick, as are the film’s intermittent lyrical voice-overs, but the compositions are still quite stunning. (Palermo and Durald are particularly fond of the enigmatic power of an oil lamp illuminating the dark.) And Palermo is perhaps even more skilled as an aural stylist. The film’s dialogue — much of which tends toward the generic, anyway — often plays second fiddle to the ambient noise of the country. The air is filled with the chirps and croaks of katydids and crickets suggesting that the serene beauty of nature is only superficial.
One & Two is, obliquely, a movie about superpowers. But it is not a superhero movie. The central premise recalls some of the origin stories in X-Men — at one point, I half-expected Eva to stumble on Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters — and other moments (which, to avoid spoilers, I will not specify) evoke Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man. This is all done very subtly, and most likely not all viewers will make the connection to our modern supergods. But if One & Two were simply an arthouse version of a superhero story, it wouldn’t be that interesting. Palermo evokes these stories as a kind of contemporary folklore, avoiding any latex suits or grandiose battles. One & Two is not about saving the public from danger but about saving yourself. Our parents give us our lives and our gifts. It’s up to us not to let them take those things away.
In theaters Friday, August 14.