‘The Great Basin’ Review: A Documentarian’s Intimate Portrait of Rural Nevada
Las Vegas, Reno, and midterm-election headlines are just a few of the things that Americans know about Nevada. In The Great Basin , New York-based filmmaker Chivas DeVinck (The Poets ) focuses on a section the state’s vast rural stretches, and a few hardy locals. These people are often romanticized as salt of the earth emblems because of their connection to the land, and their never-ending battle with the elements.
Anyone who has driven Nevada’s “Loneliest Road in America” or any other stretch of asphalt through the unincorporated West, has probably seen a few houses in the vast, wide landscape and wondered who they are. The Great Basin gives glimpses into these lives. DeVinck’s film, more than an argument, is a collection vivid postcards. Yoshio Kitagawa, Yoshio’s cinematographer, captures the setting with an affecting simplicity. The film’s first evocative view from a slow-moving freight train is elegant and unvarnished views of White Pine County’s mountain terrain and grasslands.
The Great Basin
The Bottom Line
Thoughtful, but not preachy.
Release date: Monday, Nov. 14
Director: Chivas DeVinck
1 hour 32 minutes
The onscreen events unfold in early 2020. People are beginning to talk about COVID. There are a few passing references to the forthcoming presidential ballot and Little Women is playing at Central in Ely. This single-screen theater has a vintage Motiograph projector whose receipts probably don’t matter much to box office prognosticators. (As I write this, the theater shows Black Panther – Wakanda Forever ).
DeVinck doesn’t include the ghost towns in the area, which are numerous. He does touch on the history, but he is more concerned with the people who bring it into the present. They include a farmer with his Peruvian shepherds and barflies at the McGill Club as well as employees and one of the Stardust Ranch Saloon & Brothel clients, hospital workers, a butcher who cuts and packages his wares and a few practitioners of a New Age philosophy called the School of the Natural Order.
He starts with a small-town Wiseman-esque municipal procedure. The five county commissioners are conducting their regular public meetings in the library. They hear one resident’s tearful testimony regarding dying elm tree trees and discuss whether to enforce the dog-license requirement. One commissioner questions the necessity of such a registry for canines. His only female colleague bristles.
The Great Basin politics transcend party-line orthodoxies or animosities. Hank Vogler is a low-key sheep rancher and one of the central figures in the doc’s story. He quietly explains why the Second Amendment is important to him. Vogler is also a vocal member a coalition that includes Indigenous people, farmers, and environmentalists. They have been fighting the plans of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (and developers who want to occupy the region’s natural resources). Proposed pipeline linking their region to Las Vegas would provide water for Clark County, but, protesters warn, it would leave the rest of Nevada dry.
Delaine Spilsbury, an Elder in the Western Shoshone Tribe and a key member of the anti-pipeline coalition, looks at a map to trace the region’s history. She shares the family story about her grandmother, who was orphaned when all the elders in her village were killed by white settlers. The Mormons who adopted the childless made them house servants and then shipped them off to Indian schools, which aimed to remove their culture and language.
The film portrays a rich and varied rural portrait. However, a few parts, especially towards the end, could have used more attention and time. Felicia Atkinson’s score is essential, moving from jazz-inflected chords to ethereal stretchings. It helps to connect seemingly disparate pieces with a haunting sensibility. The documentary’s most memorable motif is a series of sequences that look out through the windshield of a car while it moves along mountain roads and business streets, all the while local radio announcers do their thing.
DeVinck begins The Great Basin with a black cave and ends with a view over the starry night sky. These are poetic leaps that may not be very stirring but raise thoughtful questions about our worldview. He includes a shaggy-dog story, which he told by a McGill Club patron and received zero response from his friends. This shows that not everything in the Doc lands, at minimum not immediately. The helmer and his editors Matthieu laclau and Yann Shan Tsai pay attention to the details and don’t rush things. This honors the place they represent — a place where the seasons can be long and unforgiving. They invite us to come along the highway and ask for our help.
Distributor: Circle Collective
Production company: DialogueTalk
Director-producer: Chivas DeVinck
Director of photography: Yoshio Kitagawa
Editors: Matthieu Laclau, Yann-Shan Tsai
Music: Felicia Atkinson
Sound design: Li Dan-feng
1 hour 32 minutes
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.