Twenty years ago, in the fall of 1993, River Phoenix collapsed in front of Johnny Depp‘s club in Hollywood and shortly after passed away. He was 23 years old. At the time, he was filming Dark Blood with still today little-known Dutch director George Sluizer. The project came to a halt and only recently had Sluizer tried to put together what he could in order to show to the public what remained of the project. He crowd-funded part of the cost of post-production of the unfinished film (it runs at about 90 minutes) and it premièred last week at the Berlin International Film Festival (aka Berlinale) – in competition. An interesting project to say the least, and as a cineast I am always happy about efforts like this, I am not a fan of art rotting away behind closed doors. Someone put their love and effort into making this, even though it was never finished due to tragic events, even owing to its participants, River in particular, it deserved to be seen. So I went to a screening on the last day, at the Friedrichstadt Place in Berlin, one of the largest screens I am aware of (non-IMAX).
Goosebumps are guaranteed as the film opens with a picture of George hooked arm-in-arm with River Phoenix on the set of the film, him narrating how this project came together and what it is that we’re about to see. The director narrating in voice-over goes on throughout the film, in all those moments where scenes are unfinished but the story elements require telling. In some moments, he uses a freeze frame to allow his narration some time, and in at least one scene actually there is sound, but no moving images to accompany it. I found his narration to be fitting, not overdone and with a sense for what is required and with all his heart in the telling of this story.
The film opens in the Nevada desert, as an English actor, Harry, (Jonathan Pryce) and his wife Buffy (Judy Davis) take a classic limousine down the road on the way to a vacation that is supposed to end in a meeting that might land the man the first acting gig in a number of years. He seems to be the quiet type, his wife being more relaxed and eccentric. They’re older, but you immediately get a feeling for them being old friends and true love. Naturally, their car breaks down, so their odyssey begins in the middle of the atomic bomb test contaminated native lands, a godforsaken place economically left behind, its population devastated by resettlement and cancer. Spending a chilly night in their car, Buffy wanders off as she spots a light on the horizon. She stumbles into the arms of Boy (River Phoenix), a halfbreed living in the desert, cutting wooden dolls and fabricating musical toys for the wind out of scrap metal, with a cute and loyal dog on his side, up on a scenic part of the canyons. He tends to her bruises and they take the truck to pick up her husband…. Harry is in a world of trouble as he realizes that getting their car fixed would not be the easiest task all the while Boy fancying his flirtatious wife….
The more time they spend around Boy, in a prison made of sand, rattlesnakes and contaminated, endless distance, the more they start to break apart as individuals, unable to cope with the tension infused into their picture perfect life by geography, lust and the effects of mankind’s most destructive invention to date. In the beginning, Judy seems like the cool person in the movie, she’s neither evil nor is she overreacting like Harry. As it turns out, none of the characters you’d want to identify with, and what we’re witnessing here is some sort of Kammerspiel that is taking the couple apart in the middle, just to bring them together again in the end, Boy providing the cataclysmic element, the factors that makes this such an existentialist cinematic experiment. The atmosphere of loneliness and unforgiving nature around them, paired with the fact that what complicates their life at the moment is in fact technology, or lack thereof, makes it all the more interesting.
The question now is, whether it is a good movie. The fact is, that you cannot judge this movie on its own merits, it is inevitably linked to its history, so if you consider how this movie ended up on the big screen, what its evolution is, you have got to be intrigued by it. The movie itself is of stunning beauty, the landscapes in particular. The sound design and the music add to the atmosphere, in what I would describe as more or less Wenderian (it reminded me of scenes from a Wim Wenders movie). On top of the visuals, and the audio (don’t forget how important voice-over is in this version), you have three stellar actors that all have a very strong screen presence. I found Judy Davis to be especially convincing in her walking the line between sensible and carpe-diem. Sluizer managed to give these actors practically unlimited space (most of the movie takes place on a rock with 360 degree view of the gorgeous rocky desert), and yet elicit dense and almost claustrophobic emotions from them. A movie, that ultimately shocks, almost, or at least leaves you doubtful of what you’ve witnessed.
Dark Blood is highly interesting entry in cinematic history, it was River Phoenix’ last movie, it was never really finished, and yet as it is presented now, finally, it can stand on its own, it is testament of the makers’ efforts and I find it laudable that it was ultimately brought back to life. Many people, including myself, will (re)discover River Phoenix through this movie, in all likelihood on home video, unless this will receive a wide release (unlikely, it is too artsy). It is not the greatest of movies, but cineasts will get a kick out of it, it is a very subtle and artistic event movie.