Movie Review (Sundance 2023): ‘All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” is a Lovely Visual Poem with Little Story
Director: Raven Jackson
Writer: Raven Jackson
Stars: Moses Ingram, Sheila Atim, Chris Chalk
Synopsis: A decades-spanning exploration of a woman’s life in Mississippi and an ode to the generations of people, places, and ineffable moments that shape us.
One of my favorite scenes in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation takes place at a packed screenwriting seminar. Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is there to find inspiration for his new adaptation of The Orchid Thief from screenwriting guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox), and at one point Charlie asks if it’s possible to write an entire movie about flowers. He says, “Sir, what if the writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens?” McKee responds, “You write a screenplay without conflict or crisis you’ll bore your audience to tears.” I had this scene in my mind a lot while watching All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, one of the quietest, most plotless films I’ve ever seen. The film is so much without story or conflict or crises for ninety minutes that I’m not sure if I should dismiss it or applaud it, but sadly I can’t deny that the act of watching it is often a chore.
That’s not to say that All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt doesn’t have a lot of worthy attributes. I’ve often admired movies that deal with the passage of time and have a specific sense of place, and this film has both to an extraordinary degree, writer/director Raven Jackson giving us glimpses of a Black woman in four different decades in Mississippi. Jackson is in no rush to put a plot into motion. She’ll often spend minutes with a camera roaming around a couple of characters playing or working outside, saying little or nothing to each other, the sunlight hitting their faces, the days warm and long. For the first hour, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is almost a silent film, long stretches without any dialogue at all, the characters’ expressions and the exquisite cinematography doing all the work.
Indeed, the most impressive aspect to All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is its sumptuous cinematography, so striking I’m sad a more involving story wasn’t provided to back up all these powerful images. Just a shot of a creaky front porch has the ability to take your breath away. The colors are astonishing, and what I particularly admired were all the little details she gives us that bring this place to life, the close-ups of the land, the way the camera often follows characters but fails to show their faces fully in the frame. At one point, a character urinates on the ground, and a shot of at least twenty seconds follows that shows the urine slowly forming into a stream that starts to rush down the side of a dirt hill.
In essence, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt had the makings of a great movie, potentially a masterpiece, if a riveting story had been presented as well. I didn’t need wall-to-wall dialogue. I didn’t need the entire film to focus on one relationship between two people. I’m all for following a character over many years or decades—Richard Linklater has captured these things beautifully in films like Boyhood and the Before trilogy. A film can be lyrical, quiet, and meditative. They can have little plot, that’s fine. I would argue at least eighty percent of movies these days have too much plot, with a ridiculous focus on that standard three-act screenplay structure robbing so many promising films of greatness.
However, the main problem with All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is that the lack of story takes its toll after a while, which offers the audience almost zero emotional connection with the characters. Jackson gives us authentic, lived-in moments with the characters played by talented actors like Moses Ingram, Sheila Atim, Chris Chalk, and Zainab Jah, but those moments don’t make much impact because we’re not given access to who these people are, what they want, who they love, how they dream. A moment early in the film of a young man and woman holding each other is beautiful to look at, but as the camera pans around their hugging bodies, the man crying, the woman looking pensive, I’m unclear about the circumstances surrounding their pain, and thus, I’m unmoved.
Most frustrating of all is that the film ends on a memorably gorgeous note, the incredible score swelling as the title’s meaning comes into focus. If the movie that came before it had told slightly more of an accessible story, these final few minutes might have brought tears to my eyes, but because the characters always remain so on the surface rather than living, breathing human beings, I found myself admiring the ambition of the overall movie rather than surrendering myself to it. All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt certainly has worthy qualities, and I look forward to Raven Jackson’s next feature, but overall, the film needed more story, dialogue, and stronger developed characters to pull me through.