Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s extraordinary thriller Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, as Little White Lies’ David Jenkins astutely puts it, “forge[s] a new template for the police procedural”. It’s a dark moral tale about an assorted group of men (comprising police, soldiers, gravediggers, a doctor, and suspects) searching for a corpse on a long, dark night, illuminated by stunning widescreen panoramas of infernally autumnal landscapes, and very occasional nods toward magical realism. To watch the film is to subject yourself to a quite unique sensory and temporal experience; when you leave the cinema, you feel as though you’ve been trapped in there all night; the boredom and frustration experienced by the characters is transposed viscerally – yet paradoxically thrillingly – onto the audience.
Now: a small, perhaps fanciful observation about an amazing piece of work which may or may not have acted as an influence on Ceylan’s film. It took me a little while to put my finger on it, but when I was watching Anatolia the for the first time, there was something nagging me; a haunting memory. When it finally hit, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons. I was thinking of Jonathan Glazer’s brilliant promo video for Radiohead’s 1996 single ‘Karma Police’.
Glazer’s video is a masterpiece of creepy, largely unresolved tension. As the doomy, reverb-heavy acoustic chords of the song begin, the camera, positioned in the front of an empty car and presumably representative of the driver, glares out into the night’s blackness ahead. We hear anonymous footsteps, and the car door opens and shuts. The car starts, a light shines illuminating a long country road framed by half-lit greenery, and Thom Yorke’s vocals begin. Gradually, something becomes visible in the distance; as the car advances, the image sharpens, it’s a man, running away from the car. Periodically, we pan back to a morose-looking Yorke murmuring along to the lyrics, then eventually giving up.
The car pulls closer and closer to the man, who eventually collapses in exhaustion. The car pulls back, as if giving itself a run-up to mow the man down. Switching to the man’s point of view, he, and we, notice that the car has been leaking petrol. Clambering to his feet, the man fumbles for a match, lights it, and tosses it onto the trail. The flame kicks up in an inexorable trail while the driver/camera POV backtracks furiously to no avail. The flames engulf the car, the windscreen cracks, and the stand-off is over. As the ‘Sexy Sadie’-lifting bassline creeps upward and the distortion begins on the record, there’s a final twist: when the camera – now animated and anguished rather than dispassionate for the first time – pans back around, there’s nobody there. Thom Yorke, or the manifestation of Thom Yorke’s conscience, has escaped or vanished. Was there anybody really there in the first place?
What’s the video all about? Well, many of the same themes and tropes that run through Ceylan’s film, I’d argue. Morality, retribution, persistence, facing one’s demons, the inscrutability of evil, the elemental struggle between life and death. Both works exist on the frayed, liminal edge of wake and sleep. The video is reportedly based upon a dream experienced by Yorke, while the major narrative pivot in Anatolia occurs when the exhaustion simply becomes too much for the key suspect, and his mind gives way to hallucination in the presence of a beautiful, spectral local village woman.
Though Glazer’s work is more oblique, I think both are distinctly moral fables. I’ve always read the camera/driver figure of the video to represent somebody easily led into acts of destruction who, at the video’s conclusion, gets his comeuppance, while the dark forces driving him (perhaps embodied by Yorke) get away; this idea, in turn, chimes with Anatolia’s mentally-challenged suspect, who is possibly coerced into committing the heinous crime of murder by his brother.
Perhaps most striking in ‘Karma Police’ are the visual similarities with the first half of Anatolia, which begin with the pastoral nocturnal setting, and the claustrophobic location of the automobile. In the film’s opening sequences, the car is the scene of a long, discursive chat among the officials about – of all things – the differences between cheese and yoghurt. While the officials continue their absurd discussion, Ceylan’s camera dollies – achingly slowly – into the hollowed, inscrutable face of the prime suspect, who, like taciturn backseat driver Yorke, may or may not be responsible for the crime and the chase unfolding henceforth. Both are iconic, unforgettable images, while the car is both is the vessel of investigation, transporting, searching, locating. Furthermore, the foreboding atmosphere created by the video is disarmingly similar to Ceylan’s work: There’s the struggle between light and dark, the crushing claustrophobia in spite of vast natural space, the oblique spatial unknowability of the struggle. The body, like Thom Yorke at the video’s conclusion, could be anywhere.
My imagination continued to run wild with the delicious physical similarities between the runaway target of the “Karma Police” (that is to say Thom Yorke and his driver), and one of Anatolia’s most fascinating characters, the driver Arab Ali (Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan); a doughy figure who is brought to tears in one of the film’s most elliptical, ambiguous scenes, which uses confusing sound bridges and image overlaps to connect the psychological states of two characters.
Even Yorke’s ever-oblique lyrics seem to chime with the film’s themes of crime, punishment and mystery. “Karma police, arrest this man he talks in maths / He buzzes like a fridge / He’s like a detuned radio” sounds like a petulant order from some busybody in a totalitarian state, afraid of that which he does not understand. Naci, the police chief, is worn down by the machine of bureaucracy within which he acts as a small cog, and his quick temper and thirst for retribution echoes Yorke’s darkly intoned mantra “This is what you get… This is what you get when you mess with us”. It’s almost as though Yorke is summoning the dark forces of chance and obfuscation that bear down upon Ceylan’s beleaguered cast of characters.
Now I’m not entirely sure there’s any overarching theory at work here above and beyond the links I’ve mentioned – or if the Turkish auteur is indeed a fan of Oxford’s finest – but I do think that the two pieces complement each other extremely well as morosely effective studies in atmospheric, sweaty, exhausting night terrors. In many ways, ‘Karma Police’ could be an effective subtitle for Once Upon A Time In Anatolia. In a world where films are called things like The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift and The Raid: Redemption, it might not be such a bad idea after all.
Go ahead, watch the video for yourself and see what you think. It’s followed by the Anatolia trailer.
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P.S. In writing this post, all sorts of musical reference points popped into my head, not least of which was Public Image Ltd’s utterly chilling ‘Poptones’, (video here) the lyrics of which read:
“Drive to the forest in a Japanese car
The smell of rubber on country tar
Hindsight does me no good
Standing naked in this back of the woods
The cassette played poptones
I can’t forget the impression you made
You left a hole in the back of my head
I don’t like hiding in this foliage and peat
It’s wet and I’m losing my body heat
The cassette played poptones
This bleeding heart
Looking for bodies
Nearly injured my pride
Praise picnicking in the British countryside
Swap British for Turkish, and you’re pretty much talking about Once Upon A Time In Anatolia. Spooky, eh?