An opening shot of a snake devouring its prey sets the stage for Daniel Patrick Carbone’s debut, Hide Your Smiling Faces, a film obsessed with the nature of mortality. The shot also points to Carbone’s interest in dwelling on the ripple effects of one specific demise within a community as it contrasts with the sheer inconsequence of the death to a creature within nature itself. During the span of a summer, two brothers, Tommy (Ryan Jones) and Eric (Nathan Varnson), cope with the passing of Tommy’s friend, whose body Eric discovered in the woods. Carbone’s pensive style, so dotted with ethnographic detail, is interested in revealing a world in flux, but his fixation on death is so incessant that it situates the film as a morose fetish object.
Rather than focus on the community as an intertwined network of relationships between people, Carbone renders his characters as introspective, isolated products of nature, with their behavior seeming detached from societal conventions. This approach leads to some of the film’s more fascinating moments, as Carbone suggests post-tragedy coping periods are something of an individual experience, where personal feelings are left unexpressed; the director only includes one brief sequence of the sleepy woodsy town huddled together in the wake of the film’s central death, their gathering built on miscommunication.
Tommy and Eric find more comfort within the confines of the dense forest that surrounds their neighborhood than in the arms of loved ones, though the sudden death of Tommy’s friend causes them to behave differently in their favored setting. Eric is prone to primal and violent actions that reflect the machinations of nature (even a passing wild bear thinks nothing of Eric, completing his convergence with the natural world), while Tommy tends to see the woods as a harmless distraction and is almost reluctant to take full advantage of its possibilities.
But everything in Hide Your Smiling Faces eventually circles around to a rumination on death, and rather than broaden his ideas, Carbone simply leans on meticulous compositions of his exterior locales to do the heavy lifting for him. And striking as it may be, Nicholas Bentgen’s lensing of the film fails to engross because of its superficial resemblance to the work of Terrence Malick, Matt Porterfield, and David Gordon Green, filmmakers who, while often seized by the gloominess of human despair, are still able to capture worlds brimming with endless discovery.