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Sunday, July 31, 2011

WRISTCUTTERS: A LOVE STORY -- movie review by porfle

WRISTCUTTERS (2006) is quirky as hell but doesn't make a big deal about it, and it's this deadpan, matter-of-fact attitude that makes it so irresistible.  Wonderful characters, situations, and bits of business just keep emerging from this low-key comedy as it unwinds. 

As the story begins, Zia (Patrick Fugit, ALMOST FAMOUS, DEAD BIRDS) is slitting his wrists over a girl named Desiree (Leslie Bibb).  The next time we see him he's working in a crappy pizza place called Kamikazee's and sharing a dingy apartment with a foul-tempered Austrian guy.  It turns out that people who commit suicide end up in a world just like this one, except it's even worse.  Everything's falling apart, most of the people are listless and depressed (no surprise there), and it's physically impossible for anyone to smile.  Furthermore, everyone still retains the bodily damage resulting from their chosen methods of suicide. 

When Zia discovers that Desiree also "offed" (the local term for killing oneself) shortly after he did, he sets out to find her along with his new friend Eugene (Shea Whigham, FIRST SNOW, LORDS OF DOGTOWN). Eugene's a Russian guy who lives with his family, who all committed suicide at different times.  Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker named Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon, A KNIGHT'S TALE), who is searching for the people in charge because she believes she's there by mistake due to an unintentional drug overdose.

For awhile, WRISTCUTTERS is a fun road picture with the three of them traveling through the hot, desolate landscape in Eugene's crummy little car.  When they break down, there's a nice scene in a roadside garage where Mark Boone, Jr. (MEMENTO, SE7EN) plays a psychic auto mechanic who diagnoses their trouble by laying hands upon the car.  At one point Zia drops something under the passenger seat and finds that there's a black hole under it, which sucks in all the cassette tapes, sunglasses, and other items that he's continuously fumbling to Eugene's irritation.

Later Mikal almost gets arrested for vandalism--she has a tendency to deface signs that she disagrees with, such as scrawling "unless you want to" under a "No Smoking" sign--until Zia talks the cop out of it.  In this world, the cops all look like bums, restaurants are rundown shacks with the word "FOOD" crudely painted over the door, and there's junk scattered everywhere.  It's an interesting, well-realized environment, and it makes us wonder what the next level of existence must look like to anyone driven to off themselves on this one.

Eventually they encounter a strange man named Kneller (Tom Waits), who presides over a shantytown by the tracks.  Kneller takes in all the aimless wanderers who pass by and offers them a chance to live together in relative happiness (Etger Keret's short story upon which the screenplay is based is entitled "Kneller's Happy Campers").  But just as Zia and Mikal begin to settle in and develop romantic feelings for each other, they discover the presence of a nearby cult led by a would-be messiah (Will Arnett) who promises his fervent followers deliverance from their purgatory.  And his devoted consort is none other than Zia's ex-girlfriend, Desiree.

In a bold move, director Goran Dukic actually keeps his camera still and allows things to happen in front of it without instructing his cinematographer to hop around like his pants were on fire.  Hopefully this revolutionary technique will catch on.  The washed-out hues convey the dreary atmosphere of the present while flashbacks of the real world, where we get to see how various characters happened to snuff themselves, are shot in vivid color. 

The very likable leads compliment the dry tone of the script by giving restrained, semi-realistic performances and not trying to funny things up too much.  Tom Waits is just right as Kneller, proving once again that he's an outstanding character actor.  John Hawkes, the liquor store clerk in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, pops up as one of Kneller's "happy campers", and early on there's a cameo by Jake Busey, an old friend of Zia's who still wants the 200 bucks he owes him even if they're both dead.

It's rare that you see a movie with a premise this odd that doesn't screw it up before it's over.  But WRISTCUTTERS stays the course without once getting too cute or trying too hard to bowl us over with how clever it is.  It feels almost like Tim Burton's BIG FISH with the fairytale cream filling sucked out of it.  And when two of the characters smile at each other right before the fadeout--which, in the context of this story, is a pretty big deal--they had me doing it, too.

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