Writer/director Kevin K. Shah pulls us into the world of Julie (Martie Ashworth) and William (Larry Strauss), a couple we believe we have seen many times in our own lives. Seniors in their Golden Years, the two have very disparate ideas on what constitutes a good day. She yearns for life, digging in her gardens and breathing love into each and every plant; he seeks routine, sleeping in late, watching football, eating his wife's food, and turning off the light to do it all again. But their clash is a symbiotic one, the cause of the rift in this union impossible to find. His depression and unhidden anguish at life making her miserable, her inability to keep that frustration under wraps making him depressed. And so the future of Julie and William loses its shine day by day.
A past trip to the Rocky Mountains, remembered fondly by both, begins to serve as a physical manifestation of their love—a last ditch goal who's achievement will show success. Thus Shah introduces us to trees, a haunting score at their backs, their natural beauty a glimpse of what should be. Whether the bare branches of a forest against the sky or the rolling hills of a hiker's dream from above, this is the promise of love everlasting. And it's all threatened as the film goes on to show just how far this couple has fallen into the depths pure revulsion. These vignettes of trees begin to speed up, the music quickening—the beauty of life about to be consumed by fire. The spark has been lit and the future is helpless from its own destruction. As Julie and William drift further apart, the flames build higher, all chances for forgiveness, life, and hope resting on the failures of two people too eager to place blame than to acknowledge their own roles in this genocide of love.
It's hard for people to change and when you get to the age of these two leads, the lack of desire to do so only makes it impossible. Life was never easy for this family, but they had an understanding; they had tiny moments of warmth to get them through. This ability to survive, however, only existed because they had space, time to live their lives and come together for a night's dinner. Place all these pieces in a small space for an extended period of time with nowhere to go and an explosion is only natural. Add the fact the husband is struggling to keep his head above water emotionally, the testing of his closet bar's strength alluding to his defeat, and the wife barely able to remove her permanent scowl, the loathing of this man's sloth and ambivalence too much, and you can't say her idea to slowly alleviate the pain by poisoning him is surprising.
But it isn't handled in a comic way or with malicious intent. In fact, Shah somehow allows this heinous act to appear as charity. This is the answer for them both—he senses her want for him to be gone and she needs his exit to move on with her life. The progression of their fissure soon evolves into an earthquake, the space between them increasing with each action. And while both Ashworth and Strauss aren't household names or faces, they are nothing short of revelatory. Her suffering is always just under the surface while his forfeiture of life is stamped in the watery drooping of his defeated eyes. Every opportunity for him to understand what's happening to their marriage is shot down, his realization she is pushing him away noticeable in every scene, the deflation of body language seen when a smile turns to a frown and even a frown falling further; every grasp at hope for her buried beneath the fear and agony of God's abandonment many years ago.
White Knuckles is a slow burn with an emotionally resonate—albeit expected—outcome. The visual style seamlessly moves from the trees metaphorically depicting the tempestuous souls at play, routinely shot scenes of character interaction, and extreme close-ups with shallow depth of field disorienting and intriguing in their artistry and carefully chaotic composition. Love is oftentimes depicted as some serendipitous contrivance of fate used as a device to warm audiences' hearts. It's rare to then watch two people with a history together attempt to reconcile the distance grown between them. The mushy, clichéd period of dating is long gone, replaced only by strain. In such a situation, sometimes you must lose everything to once again realize what it was you had. Life kicks you down more times than anyone could ever expect and it is those around you willing to offer a hand that matter. We all have people in our lives we wish ill upon, those we feel we'd be better off without. But instead of blaming God, instead of blaming them, it is most likely ourselves who need to wake-up. Our only solace is in knowing we may be able to do so with enough time to make it count.