In essence an examination of failure imposed by social expectation, Bastian Günther's rabbit hole character deconstruction, Houston, follows German headhunter Clemens Trunschka (Ulrich Tukur) from his native country to the titular Houston, Texas. Having a spotty employment track record, he jumps on the opportunity to convince American petroleum guru—the CEO of Houston Petrol—to take on a job in Germany—with the appropriation, or attempted theft, of American capital industry acting as subtext for Germany's current ranking in the global economy.
Barely holding on to his existence as a functioning alcoholic, being little more than a pseudo-competent physical shell for his wife (Jenny Schily) and two kids, his self-loathing is exacerbated by his inability to even get into the building where his American CEO target works, let alone talk to the man.
What follows is a journey of compounding failures. Clemens spends his time in the U.S. following the Petroleum King from work to home to country clubs, hoping to find a gap in the constant team of security and drivers surrounding him. Forging various plans involving manual labourers and country club visits, he perpetually comes up short and resorts to drinking himself unconscious in his hotel room.
This single-minded quest to prove his own worth in the capital market, believing himself to be an impediment to society if he is unable to perform this task, is aesthetically juxtaposed with the sterility of the Houston environment, where corporate towers jut into the skyline and repetitive, shelving unit architecture makes the individual man little more than a diminutive insect.
But this calculated quest of self-hatred and punishment is tempered with a glimmer of hope or opportunity when the similarly lonely Robert Wagner (Garret Dillahunt) enters Clemens' life like a force of nature. Though Clemens is unable to see the worth in his overly agreeable and transparently needy friend, who reads, in part, as a possible mystery in itself (Is Wagner a figment of Clemens imagination, or perhaps some sort of spy or competitor?), he is only able to make progress in his task with Wagner's help.
While thematically heavy, dealing with alcoholism and an ever-expanding definition of hitting rock bottom, Houston isn't about doting on misery. Clemens chooses to ignore the needs of a potential friend, valuing the prospect of career success over the prospect of finding a connection in the world, reiterating the notion that his disposition is self-imposed and readily escapable.
Günther's style is magnetic unto itself, having a crisp, lyrical sensibility despite being very deliberately paced and covering very little action. Dillahunt injects a comic component to the film at key moments, mocking his new German friend's motivational tapes—"What the hell? Is that Hitler? You're a weird dude!"—and taking him to a strip bar for fun. But even though Günther adds this bit of comedy to lighten the tone and Dillahunt sells it impeccably, there's still an underlying pain in Wagner that highlights the coldness and loneliness of a traveling corporate life.
The end result is a deeply touching and astute film that manages to capture the pain of measuring the self against social expectation, while also hitting on nature of global economy and harshness of corporate appropriation on the individual and the world on the whole.
To read our exclusive interview with director Bastian Günther, click here.