A fairy tale name that couldn't be further away from the truth, as the film depicts the story of a murder and the search for the victim’s body in the vast peninsula emptiness of the Anatolian hills. As night falls and the sky is a beautiful Claude Monet-like vanilla sky, darkness slowly approaches over the beautiful Anatolian country side. Set in the eastern providence of Turkey, with low hills, bumpy roads and not a soul in sight. Then from far away we see the headlights of three cars sparkle as they burrow their way toward us bringing the darkness with them. The three cars carry a police chief, prosecutor, Turkish military Gendarmerie, forensic doctor and perplexed murderer. The officials and murderer are looking for the victim’s body, somewhere buried out in the vast steppes. Unable to remember where he buried the body due to being drunk, the group takes several attempts and long drives around the bitter cold and empty country to find the body.
Once upon a time in Anatolia is a brilliant voyage into self-discovery of police procedural pushed to its limit. Also it’s a tour of mortal emotional gravity and a mystery thriller that steers away from the murder and the murderer but to the police chief, prosecutor and doctor. A night of long driving around in rain in the rural surroundings of the Anatolian town of Keskin, the group give talk about personal life experiences and previous contracts that left them all bitter. These conversations we hear have a profound feeling of eavesdropping and that the more we hear the more secrets are hinted to us. Given by the eeriness of the atmosphere, the men often comfort one another with lighthearted banter that steers to local and political matters. But the mortality of the crime when discovering the body shakes the very core of all the men. Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan beautifully conveys the character development through the investigation of the murder by steering away from the case and the all-nighter search for the body. The night began as an assignment but then became a voyage into a glimpse into their souls. Ceylan makes the night more than just a murder case but addresses the converse subjects of the personal lives which surrounds their life choices.
Almost the entire film is outdoors. So the night sky, car head lights and random light of thunder sets the mood of a bewitching Turkish murder film. We are constantly kept in the darkness of the countryside, a metaphor that implies the hopelessness of searching for the body and the reason. Somewhere between the mesmerising cinematography and the enigma of emotions around the characters, lies an oblique supremacy of fascinating dialogue and an ending that symbolises that life will carry on, even after the long, bitter and cold all-nighter.