Raven Jackson’s directorial debut All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is a distillation of cinema to its purest form, a stunning patchwork of experience and memory. Daring in its formal gambits but universal for how it explores humanity’s connection with nature, loss, and love, it’s among few films in the history of Sundance that genuinely seems to advance the language and possibilities of cinema. With adoring notes of Terrence Malick, Andrei Tarkovsky, Carlos Reygadas, and Julie Dash, Jackson isn’t wholly reinventing what has come before, but rather pushing this poetic-based variety into thrilling new territories.
Freed from the shackles of linear storytelling, Jackson jumps around the life of Mack, a Black woman from Mississippi, as we witness glimpses of her childhood, teenage years, and beyond. We begin with her as a child (Kaylee Nicole Johnson) fishing with her father (Chris Chalk), though it’s many minutes before we see either of their faces. Captured with 35mm, Jomo Fray’s exquisite cinematography is more focused on the water, the swimming fish, hands clasped on the rickety fishing pole. This introduction sets up the thrillingly adventurous formal gambit of Jackson’s debut: synthesizing signifiers of standard narrative into their most elemental form, creating an impressionistic, kaleidoscopic view of a life. The poetic push and pull of images creates an astounding visual language that reaches a deeply spiritual plane of cosmic proportions, connecting this intimate, rooted story of life to others throughout all of time. By focusing on humanity’s connection with nature––a gentle embrace as the sun sets and rain falls; peeing in the dirt next to trampled peaches; the overwhelming sound of insect life––Jackson’s vision has a timeless feel, as if Mack is facing the same experiences her ancestors have in generations past and whose family will continue to do in the centuries to come.
Editor Lee Chatametikool––who has experience with such boundary-pushing, time-altering techniques in the works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Anocha Suwichakornpong––brings a similar sense of sculpting in time. One sequence begins with a family’s hands stacked on top of each other for what feels like minutes. We then learn Mack’s mother has passed away and everyone is on their way to the funeral; by establishing this initial shot for far longer than expected, it majestically epitomizes every emotion and sense of familial connection we need to know which will follow. Such experimentation is further exemplified when we jump to Mack (Charleen McClure) later in life, reconnecting outside of work with her former love Wood (Reginald Helm Jr.), who is now married. While barely any words are exchanged between them, a ten-minute-plus sequence solely features their slow, gentle embrace: first just glancing, then holding hands, then a hug. While this could be considered glacial in the hands of another director––though there’s the sense no one else would have the confidence to conceive such a sequence––Jackson imbues every moment and new cut with another layer for warmth and tenderness, focusing on close-ups of hands and eyes as the two bodies steadily come closer and closer together. What might be considered a plodding endurance test on the surface pushes into new realms of intimacy, each small movement speaking volumes.
All Dirt Roads was produced by Barry Jenkins’ PASTEL, who is coming off another deeply moving portrait of fractured memory and time with Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun; it’s commendable just how much freedom both first-time directors are given. For relying on the barest narrative threads, watching All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is more an experience of transformative renewal than gleaning specific details of Mack’s story. “It doesn’t end or begin. It just changes. All drops might be a river or snow,” one of Mack’s family members expounds later in the film, speaking to the cyclical nature of falling rain. This sense of eternal rhythm in harmony with the world around us is the driving force of Jackson’s debut. Punctuating her images with bursts of orchestral music in their most transcendent moments, Raven Jackson is one of the few filmmakers whose indebtedness to Malick doesn’t feel like an imitation but rather a vision that advances his language to exquisitely original new levels.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt premiered at Sundance 2023 and will be released by A24.