By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***** out of *****
“Undertaker” (2021), from director Chris Esper, is a masterful meditation on the inherent need for mankind to understand life. It also concerns the confusion that arises as we attempt to comprehend our wants, desires, and surroundings. The ten-minute short film also focuses in on how fleeting our time is on Earth. This is cleverly illustrated in the piece through several efficient and effective sequences that range from the commonplace (the search for a perfect cup of coffee) to the transformative (uncovering a key romantic relationship). Furthermore, the account can also be viewed as a singular glimpse of the world that may arise after death.
As is the core component of a great number of works by Esper, the universal relatability in these themes, as well as the compassionate and upfront manner with which they are addressed, is emotionally compelling from the first frame to the last. The same can be said of the brilliantly handled symbolism inherent in the project. Because of this connection, onlookers effortlessly comprehend the mentality of the lead of the exercise, referred to as only The Undertaker (rendered in a terrific, quietly layered, and mature portrayal by Dustin Teuber). The gorgeous black and white cinematography from Colin Munson adds an air of nostalgia to the narrative. It beautifully compliments these qualities as well as its noirish demeanor.
The deceptively simple story, which involves a man realizing that everything around him is not what it he believes it to be, is given superb depth via the wonderfully penned, intimate yet ambitious screenplay by Kris Salvi. The script is especially striking in demonstrating sharp dialogue. Such speech capably teases the fundamental mystery The Undertaker is attempting to unlock about himself and his environment. This is without ever being wholly direct. Such measures add a heightened sense of elegant poetry to the proceedings that is simultaneously theatrical and organic. In an equally successful decision in this arena, the characters are also cryptic.
The excursion also triumphs in terms of its secondary roles. Justin Thibault is memorable in his brief turn, which occurs in the engaging opening segments, as Passenger. Salvi is equally good in the understated, yet gloriously poignant, final scene as The Driver. Teddy Pryor as The Identical, Michael Lepore as Waiter, and Jen Drummond as Customer also make a considerably indelible impression.
From a technical angle, the undertaking is also outstanding. The stylish, yet nuanced and thoughtful, direction from Esper is a highlight. His editing is also proficient. The music from Steven Lanning-Cafaro is appropriately gentle and spellbinding. It captures the spirit of the development with tremendous grace. Moreover, the score is used both delicately and sparingly. Such a method punctuates the underlying sentiment of certain instances. This is without taking away from the immersive value of the construction. Continually, the production design from Gabrielle Rosson and sound from Ryan Collins and Jay Sheehan is just as remarkable.
Playing like a condensed, yet still wildly inventive and timelessly relevant, episode of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), “Undertaker” is a confidently paced, smartly structured, and unforgettable example of cinematic art. The dreamlike drama once again showcases Esper as an incredible talent who consistently crafts top-tier material. His latest venture is another unique, intelligent, breathtaking, powerful, and refined achievement that will assuredly resonate with spectators of all degrees. Extraordinary on all fronts and endlessly absorbing, it is at the top of the list of my favorite short films of the year.