Before we turn to others to set up Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, let me recommend two pieces right at the top here, the first by Ari Arikan, whose review for Fandor opens with an engaging and quite funny tale of his experience with the sheer vastness of the film's setting, and the second by Bilge Ebiri, a long-time champion of Nuri Bilge Ceylan who considers Anatolia to be among his best works.
First, though, Scott Foundas, writing for Cinema Scope before the film screened in Toronto: "From Memories of Murder (2003) to Zodiac (2007), Bellamy (2009), and Police, Adjective (2009), the past decade has witnessed its fill of revisionist takes on the police procedural — films in which politics, personal obsession, or personal exhaustion eclipse the underlying question of 'Whodunnit?' Movies, in short, that push the audience's lust for closure ever more towards an existential or absurdist void. The co-winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia plunges further still into that abyss, giving us a long night's journey into a creeping dawn that serves to illuminate little, save for the deep-set crags on the weary faces of Ceylan's actors. In methodically tracing the play-by-play of a seemingly routine police investigation, it is a film of many details but no explanations, a mystery that conjures a sense of the eternal."
Andrew Schenker is a fan of neither Ceylan nor Anatolia (he gives it a mere 1.5 out of Slant's 4 stars), but his outline here is clear and concise: "The film's two-and-a-half hours are devoted to observing a team of policemen, doctors, and lawyers dragging a perp through the Anatolian countryside in order to locate the dead body of his victim, as well as to the bureaucratic fallout of that process, and the sense of absurdity that remains the dominant tone feels as carefully contrived and top-down imposed as the director's trademark too-perfect compositions. As the team makes their way across the deserted landscape in a three-vehicle caravan, death and its aftermath become the stuff of very lo-fi comedy. Jokes abound in throwaway conversations about prostates and in 'edgy' treatments of death, such as the cavalier manner in which the victim's cadaver is handled, but all of this feels too calculated, too on-the-nose to really register anything of the absurdity of existence (or death), especially when this dark comedy is supplemented by dour pseudo-philosophical musings on man's place in the universe."
"Andrei Tarkovsky proves a marked point-of-reference," suggest Michael J Anderson and Lisa K Broad. "Tarkovsky's own schizophrenic sense of rootedness, commensurate with his Russian identity (divided between East and West), returns as one of a set of binaries that defines Ceylan's national allegory: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia signposts both Turkey's Middle Eastern status and also its desired European allegiance, with the film's cosmopolitan prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel) comically offering that a bit of untoward police work will not help with the country's EU application. As he makes the claim, [an] apple slides down the hillside, reminding the viewer of [Abbas Kiarostami] even as the aforesaid professes a hope for European assimilation; that is, Ceylan juxtaposes Turkey's split national personality, dividing the two on the level of style and content."
For Bilge Ebiri, "this director who was once pegged (even by myself) as moving somewhere along the continuum between Kiarostamian impressionism and Jarmuschian deadpan has journeyed now into a fiercely more ambitious and cosmic cinematic realm. And Anatolia has more in common with something like 2001 or Stalker than it does with, I dunno, Through the Olive Trees or even Taste of Cherry… Once Upon a Time in Anatolia seems to me to be, more than anything, a film about death — or perhaps more specifically, mortality." Even so, "if you speak Turkish and have a feel for the cadences of the language, Anatolia is a very, very funny film."
"This is a slow, yet determined, film," writes Ari Arikan, arguing that the "various beats identifying yet a new place where the body might have been buried, and then for the party to be proven wrong once again, are not repetitive. Instead, they offer a sort of Sisyphean vibe to the proceedings. The lack of closure, and the seemingly increasing distance at each failed juncture, provides the characters with all the more reason for introspection. Ceylan, and his trusted DP Gökhan Tiryaki, illuminate the night-time scenes with the high-beams from the cars, the effect adding to the sense of emotional bankruptcy and general despondency…. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a film of multitudes. It refuses to give answers; opting, instead, to present the viewer with a cornucopia of complex characters and emotions. It never strays; there is not one single shot too many. It is superbly acted, wonderfully written, and immaculately shot. It is a masterpiece."
That word's dropped by Bilge Ebiri as well — and by Tom Hall: "Yes, we live in an age of hyperbole and yes, the thrill of the new can sometimes overwhelm our ability to recognize what will last, but there is something about Ceylan's work that transcends. Here, and not for the first time, Ceylan's incredible gifts as an image maker are put to the service of a complex, multifaceted story that is surprising for the simplicity of its premise and the vast richness of its execution."
The L's Mark Asch finds this "extraordinary" film "deliberately larded with anticlimax, black comedy, slapstick, bureaucratic diddling, and human pretension — all surrounding moments of unsettling beauty and inadvertent revelation."
More from Christopher Bell (Playlist, A), Stephen Holden (New York Times) and R Emmet Sweeney (Movie Morlocks). Earlier: Reviews from Cannes.
"A master of staging, depth, color and composition, Ceylan's films possess a cinematographic range that, as exemplified by his previous two films, literally encompasses night and day." Vadim Rizov for Fandor on Climates (2006) and Three Monkeys (2008).
Update, 10/9: "As I watched Once Upon a Time in Anatolia slowly unfold, I kept thinking of, oddly enough, the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men," writes Kenji Fujishima at the House Next Door. "That was another genre film that broadened into something more troubling and introspective. It also explores a lot of the same thematic and emotional territory, in its own way, that Ceylan tackles here — most notably, the ways different people, of different generations, respond to the inevitability of death. Like Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men, for instance, Nusret gives off a world-weary air, as if by now he has become spiritually exasperated at dealing with death and mortality on a daily basis. That reflective air, leavened on occasion by bits of bleak, wry humor, seems to infect the whole film; it's as if Ceylan had stretched the meditative tone of the last half hour of the Coens' film across 157 minutes."
Update, 10/11: "This is," argues Benjamin Mercer in Reverse Shot, "essentially, the trajectory of Ceylan's characters: In trying to make up the distance between the life they're living and the one they imagine they might live (whether through abrupt relocation or the taking up of a love affair, illicit or not), they fall into a rut between the banks, borne along slowly toward the final terminus. Ceylan doesn't appear to make any exceptions: Even the filmmaker's most direct portrait of the artist, the photographer Mahmut in the remarkable Distant (2002), the director's most successful feature up until now, is entirely (and hilariously) unforgiving. The almost totally unproductive Mahmut pretends he's enriching himself by rewatching Tarkovsky's Stalker — until nobody's looking, that is, at which point he immediately rotates the tape out for a porn movie. Ceylan's despairing worldview is even more expansively depicted in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia."
Update, 10/15: Some moments, Ceylan adjusts "the color so meticulously that each quadrant of the frame seems to have been lit by a different sun," writes Ben Sachs at Cine-File. "The movie is as sensitive to the subtleties of light as any Vermeer painting, noting the differences in effects of dusk, twilight, moonlight and dawn; indeed, the characters register much like the figures in painting do, as representations of facets of humanity. It's often hard to think of them in more specific terms; Ceylan's images seem to spill over into forever."