Though shot in Romania, “The World to Come,” directed by Mona Fastvold, conjures an almost artisanal feeling of life in rural upstate New York in 1856. Generically, it plays like a western — a romance in untamed territory where snowy landscapes foster isolation, not explorative possibilities. When her young daughter dies of diphtheria, Abigail (Katherine Waterston) does not anticipate “a better world to come.”
Still, the shy Abigail’s life improves when she meets a new neighbor, Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), who becomes her brash and effusive foil. Abigail can’t decipher Tallie’s relationship with her husband, Finney (Christopher Abbott), whose outward civility masks an abusive streak. Abigail’s husband, Dyer (Casey Affleck), a farmer with a fondness for mechanical tools, initially seems like the less polished of the men.
Despite pervasive voice-over supplied by Abigail’s writerly diary entries, “The World to Come” leaves much unsaid. When Tallie asks Abigail what she thinks about the two of them together, Abigail says she does not “know how to put it into words.” (The screenplay is by Ron Hansen, of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” and Jim Shepard, from a story by Shepard.)
Waterston and Kirby are both superb at creating characters whose attraction must be shown to grow by degrees, without overt admission. Affleck and Abbott, too, navigate a tricky dynamic, playing men who perhaps lack an understanding of their own compassion or brutishness. The use of film stock, natural light, narrow compositions and an offbeat, clarinet-heavy score by Daniel Blumberg all contribute to the sense of a story dusted off from the past.
The World to Come
Rated R. Discreet sex; animal slaughter. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes. In theaters. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.