At the center of “Columbus” is a bank designed by Eero Saarinen. It’s the first truly modernist bank, a simple unimposing glass building. Built in a time — Casey (Haley Lu Richardson “Split”) tells us — when banks were fortresses where tellers sat behind bars.
Then Saarinen came to Columbus and rewrote the rules for what a bank, and really what a building, should be. “Columbus” takes it’s name from the same sleepy Indiana town that boasts Mike Pence’s birthplace and a concentration of modernist architecture. And like Saarinen’s bank, the film breaks from the conventions of modern indie films — simplifies, elevates and opens them up.
After his estranged arcitect father ends up in the hospital during a business trip, Jin (John Cho “Star Trek Beyond”), a translator living in Seoul, travels to Columbus. He meets Casey, who shares his father’s love of architecture, and lets her take him around the city showing him the buildings she loves. The result is a lot like a Linklater film — quiet and simple with meticulous visual composition. It’s a walk and talk movie where the characters just happen to be talking about modernist architecture.
A stunning debut feature from Kogonada, “Columbus” owes a great deal of it’s staying power to it’s cinematographer Elisha Christian (“In Your Eyes”) who composes shots with precision and nuance. The camera lingers in quiet long takes that are balanced and beautiful. Buildings and nature are given equal screen time and we are asked to look at both through the admiring eyes of the two leads. Through their eyes — and through Christian’s — banks and hospitals become things of immense beauty. Most movies have at least one shot that floors me. “Columbus” is a movie made entirely of those kinds of shots.
Richardson and Cho’s chemistry isn’t initially apparent. Their first interaction — smoking cigarettes on either side of a fence — is odd. They make bad jokes and have to explain them, but both actors have the subtlety to infuse their slow, and often awkward, courtship with charm.
Richardson especially proves herself to be at the top of her class. She is an absolute dream as Casey, giving the kind of nuanced and vulnerable performances most actors only find in their late careers.
“Columbus” is a romance and yet it’s not entirely clear who is falling in love with whom. There’s the obvious couple, Jin and Casey, but there’s also Jin’s unresolved feelings for Eleanor and Casey’s flirtation with Gabriel. Ultimately it seems the real love story, the most compelling romance, is that between people and buildings.
It’s a romance in the sense that it’s a movie about love and the ways in which people share what they love. It’s a movie about a girl who loves a bank and tries to tell a man why she loves it. But, of course, it’s impossible to put something like that into words.
“Columbus” is as unexpected as it’s namesake. A secret stash of beauty in a genre — quiet indies — that often prioritize quirk and cleverness over aesthetic composition. Like the buildings it depicts, “Columbus” cares equally about form and function.