There's a Reason for Everything
You don’t need an autopsy if the cause of death is clear.
—Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel)
“Women can sometimes be very ruthless, doctor.” Before he makes this observation, Prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) pauses at the office door of Dr. Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner). They look at once another, their gazes steady. Both men know what he’s talking about, and neither will say it.
In this moment, near the end of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da), the doctor and the prosecutor are on their way downstairs to the morgue, where they’ll be documenting and then autopsying a murder victim. They’ve spent the previous couple of days in search of the body, led by the killer, Kenan (Firat Tanis), who confesses his crime and then some.
The murder is gruesome and the men who travel by car across the Turkish countryside (“Anatolia”) are veteran investigators, looking to solve a familiar sort of case. But still, this is not a crime story in the conventional sense. It’s not about the killer’s motive, the cops’ expertise, or the judgments passed. Rather, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s movie investigates how crime—the idea and the fact—shapes experience and vice versa.
Open this week at New York’s Film Forum, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia begins with a shot pushing slowly into a window. Your view is obscured, though you can make out a TV screen, blue and bright, and three figures, blurred. As the focus clears, you see three men, hunched over a meal and laughing. drinking and laughing. One of them rises and comes to the window, his face filling your frame, under sounds of traffic, a thunder crack, a dog barking. The scene cuts outside, a long shot of the garage where the men work, framed by huge truck tires and a cloudy sky, a dog tied outside. A truck passes, a black shadow that wipes the screen.
You never see what happens, how Kenan kills his companion. Instead, you see distant cars at night, winding along hilly roads. They stop, men exit, they look for the spot where the body is supposed to be, but isn’t. The cops—along with the prosecutor, the doctor, and the two men who’ve buried their friend—resume their search. And as they drive, they talk about yoghurt: the camera takes up another slow push in, past Commisar Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan) and the driver Ali (Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan), whom everyone calls “Arab”—to their suspect in the back seat, crammed between Cemal and Nusret. By the time the shot becomes a close-up of Kenan’s face, you see that he is, in fact, nodding off, exhausted as they make their way through the dark.
Over the next two and a half hours, the men continue to talk, about the case, their jobs, their expectations. Naci has an ailing child, and his wife presses him on the phone to be sure to get medication from the doctor. The Arab extols the pleasures of hunting (“I love it here,” he says, “I load up my pockets with bullets, 40 or 50, and I come here and fire away, it’s a way of letting off steam”), then explains to the doctor the other uses of his weapon. Describing the basic brutality of his work and the bad men he sees every day, he says. “If it comes to it, you have to be ruthless and shoot them right between the eyes. That’s how it is around here, doctor, you’re kind of forced to take matters into your own hands.” As he speaks, the camera pans slowly, revealing grass that waves in the wind, eerily lit by their parked cars’ headlights, Cemal’s still profile, weary or resistant, and the Arab’s eye, wet, though it’s unclear whether from wind or torment.
Throughout the night and the next day, when they do in fact find the body, buried and hogtied, the men reveal their differing ideas about crime—about bad and good men, and about women. The men all have stories about women, from Naci’s anxious wife to Cemal’s ex (back in town, he gazes at her photo in his office, a likey reason why he, a “city boy,” has taken a job far out in the country). When the convoy stops for a meal during the night, a local mayor, Mukhtar (Ercan Kesal), offers food and drink, his daughter (Cansu Demirci), serving tea on a tray after the electricity goes out. As she leans toward each man, he looks up and she seems lit ethereally, her face floating in the darkness, her eyes turned away. Kenan is so moved by her offer of tea that he begins to weep. But you see in this moment other meanings as well, as the diurnal violence of “country” life gives way briefly to beauty and peace and kindness, however impelled by her father’s demands.
And this is what Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is about, the violence that inheres in human relations, that structures families, molds men and women. Nusrat suggests to the doctor that he can’t understand how hard it is to grow up out here: “You don’t know how boys suffer here, without a father,” he says, “It’s the kids who suffer most in the end, doctor, it’s the kids who pay for the sins of adults.”
He’s speaking about the son of the dead man, but also, you see, about himself, or a version of himself. When Nusrat briefly jokes about his past, when he was a student and compared to Clark Gable, the sorrow in his eyes is striking. For he also remembers his wife, who died of a heart attack just five months after she gave birth to their child. While he describes her repeatedly as “gorgeous” and misses her terribly, he’s startled to hear Cemal’s suggestion that her death might not have been what he’s lived with, the story he’s told himself.
Like the other men in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the prosecutor is used to order, to finding and imposing it on events that would otherwise seem random or chaotic. So too, the doctor finds stories in corpses, as the commissar and the policemen who ride with them also sort out causes and effects in the crimes they investigate. Even so, as the film’s long, lingering, last image of a wife and child on a hillside suggests, the men’s stories can’t explain everything.