Post-apocalyptic dramas have become such a staple of modern storytelling that many nowadays often take the backdrop for granted, as if audiences all know the way the world is going to end so well that it requires little elaboration. Casey Affleck’s bleak Light of My Life — which he co-stars, writes and directs — falls into this loose category of talky, character-based survival dramas, which for some might seem familiar. But, Affleck has conceived an original scenario, and he’s placed it against a gorgeously lyrical backdrop. Light of My Life delivers a lush variation on familiar elements, and wends its way to a tense finale, of which is built up to beautifully. The movie unfolds in the wake of a disease that has wiped out most of the women on Earth, while Affleck’s later-named father defends his young daughter, Rag (Anna Pniowsky), from a man’s world. Yet Light of My Life has less to do with the failures of a male-dominated society than the psychological duress of a parent struggling to let this child grow up. Think Leave No Trace mixed with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Forced to dress as a boy and go by the name Alex in front of others, eleven-year-old Rag cautiously travels across inhospitable terrain with her father a decade after a plague eradicated most women — among them her mother (Elisabeth Moss in flashbacks) — and turned those remaining into targets. Interweaved in Daniel Hart’s disquietingly ethereal score, every decision they make is prone to become dangerous. Bedtime stories and straightforward conversations on morality and death thrive in Light of My Life, including the film’s poignant long-take driven opening that revisits the biblical tale of Noah’s ark. Through and through Affleck’s screenplay displays an intense amount of emotional depth and strongly nuanced humanity. The father’s reassuring efforts and Rag’s unapologetic inquires are conveyed with naturalistically sumptuous dialogue. Scenes in stark darkness, where the two ponder the future, outweigh the violent occurrences in apprehension and intensity.
Discounting the quasi-mockumentary/non-fiction experiment I’m Still Here, this movie marks Affleck’s narrative debut behind the camera, and a logical extension of his talents. Light of My Life consolidates the sleepy, expressionistic style found in much of Affleck’s acting work from the past twenty years: From Gerry to The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, all the way through Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Affleck has been a wonderfully understated performer, often having a fondness for playing dazed introverts adrift in empty worlds. And none are more empty than the one in Light of My Life, which unfolds almost exclusively within the confines of foggy, dense forestry, where Affleck’s father character roams the foliage with Rag.
With his reputation as an understated performer, Affleck has brought that minimalist approach with him behind the camera: fight scenes seem designed not so much to thrill but to feel endured; ambiguities are left nicely cryptic; moments of chase are never rushed; nor is the camera. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw has crafted an absorbing grey-tinted palette that endows the outdoor imagery with a painterly depth, finding menace and beauty in the late autumn and stark winter hues. Meandering in the emptiness, casting an atmospheric spell.
Affleck’s signature mournful practicality serves him well in the role of a man seeking to thoughtfully parent and protect his child under unimaginably precarious circumstances. In Pniowsky’s precise matter-of-factness, her and Affleck’s father-daughter relationship operates with total openness. Overall, Pniowsky is a staggering revelation. Together they’re clearly the life and soul of the film and are best sampled through any of their exchanges, like when Affleck’s character attempts to have “the talk” or tries to explain a stranger’s sexist and racist remark. In the end, all Affleck’s character wishes is to ensure he prepared Rag for a world that disfavors her gender, but what better indication that his job as caretaker succeeded in raising an empowered and self-sufficient young girl than realizing the “love adventure” they are on has always been her story to navigate and overcome with or without him. Lead by two tremendous performances by Casey Affleck and Anna Pniowsky, Light of My Life envelops you in an atmosphere of subtle humanity and powerful emotional depth.