Two Gates of Sleep is Brooklyn-based artist Alistair Banks Griffin’s sparse and meticulous ode to the ritual of family and the sometimes-perverse nature of the last request—and the toll it takes on those who have been left behind. Jack (Brady Corbet) and his more talkative yet less tangible brother Louis (David Call) live in the deep heart of the Southern U.S. with their mother, Bess (Karen Young), who isn’t well. Though it’s never clear exactly what’s wrong with her, Young’s performance as a despondent and most likely severely depressed young mother of two teenage boys is frighteningly good, despite a limited amount of screen time. Early in the film, Bess wanders off in to the woods in the middle of the night (she pulls the same stunt during a hair cut and other times as well—as if following the distant call of some dead lover) and Jack, who seems to take the best care of her, finds her the next morning face down in the mud, dead, her stringy yellow hair caked with the brown dirt. It’s unclear how she died, though we may infer that it was some sort of self-inflicted act. Louis calls a doctor “out of courtesy,” but it’s clear that these boys aren’t going to stand for their mother to be violated by any sort of embalming or prodding of the mortician.
There’s perhaps a not so subtle commentary here on the issue of health care, and the regressive distrust of the medical profession in the Deep South, as well as the inability for the poorer ranks of society to get the care they need. As the boys and their mother have their last meal together they watch a fuzzy program on TV about someone getting treated for something in the hospital. The brothers seem to know that their mother is sick, and yet, they do nothing to try and help her. Though it’s hard to see exactly why, it’s only after she’s dead that they take any action at all. They build a coffin out of pine, line it with feathers from the pillows of her bed, and place their mother inside, preparing for the journey they will make to her final resting place. Only the occurrence of death warrants the leaving of the small shack and woods in which they live.
For any viewer even remotely familiar with the Greek classics, the title of the film will become immediately apparent as a reference to Homer’s Gate of Horn and Gate of Ivory, the two gates of sleep that control the dreams of mythic characters like Penelope in The Odyssey. The referential aspect of this film is apt and well wrought, as the rest of the action consists of the brother’s travels to an un-discussed yet nonetheless well-known location in the deep woods where they will bury their mother. As the epic journey progresses, it’s clear that Jack is able to cope, where Louis slowly unravels and eventually disappears from the story completely, furthering the metaphor in the title of the piece. Essentially, in the Greek epic, the gates of sleep are represented thusly: the sleep gate crafted from ivory allows the dreamer to only have dreams that are wonderful and filled with fantastic occurrences that will never come true in the real world, tricking them into thinking happiness is coming their way, whereas the sleep gate crafted from horn allows only dreams that are practical and less exciting but represent events that will assuredly come to pass. Jack and Louis become representations of truth and deceit, horn and ivory, as Jack, in a triumphant and painful scene drags his mother’s coffin up a steep embankment by himself, his brother Louis having fled the night before, unable to see his task through to the end.
Alistair Banks Griffin, who also wrote the screenplay, shoots Two Gates of Sleep like an ambiguous art film, despite the strong narrative structure, focusing and un-focusing repeatedly on the menacing wind tearing through the foliage while keeping the shots close on the faces and bodies of the two brothers. There’s a sense of perfectly controlled claustrophobia and morbidity that permeates the milieu of the film—the idea of the coffin, the mugginess of the woods. For most of their odyssey the brothers float their mother down a river and moments such as when the coffin begins to sink and then must be emptied of water on the shore, causing Jack and Louis to recoil and vomit from the stench of their own decomposing mother are vicious in their tireless truth. Similarly, after digging the hole for her grave, Jack ends up in the pit with the coffin, the shot close in, tight, sweaty; a piece of the coffin breaks away as he tries to climb out, revealing a quick glimpse of the purpled and bloated corpse’s face. Jack finally cries and is overwhelmed by the worms crawling through her chest. Though Two Gates of Sleep gets as cryptic at times as The Odyssey in its convention and fantastic storytelling, if you’re able to follow Jack on his journey to bring his mother to her resting place, the final moments of this epic are reward enough to warrant the toil of the quest.