Dark Blood


Reviewed by: Sophie Monks Kaufman

"Dark Blood is an offbeat film no one would call formally perfect, yet the depths it gutsily goes for and its strange vein of comedy make it one to think about and enjoy"

River Phoenix, the precociously talented star of Stand By Me, My Own Private Idaho and Running On Empty who died aged 23 from a speedball outside Johnny Depp’s Viper Room has achieved, in circles that care, the status of a fallen angel. His golden-haired beauty, vulnerability, gravitation to goodhearted but marginalised characters, fierce integrity and the ridiculous youth of his unnatural death come together to mythologise all that could have been but now never will.

He died while filming Dark Blood and 20 years later, what exists of it has been patched together and shown, first at the Netherlands Film Festival then at Berlinale. Released in the US in March, it should hopefully not be long before a UK date is announced. Quite aside from its curiosity value, morbid parallels and the general wonder of watching River resurrected, the film is an eccentric gem held aloft by three perfectly unified performances.

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The obvious problem - what to do about scenes River died before he could film – is handled by director George Sluizer with brassy candour. He switches to narration over a set still wherever he lacks footage to tell the story. Rather than feeling abrupt, his gravelly monotone introduces an epic ‘Dutch Werner Herzog reads Arabian Nights’ exoticism, a sense enhanced by Florencia Di Concilio’s deep, dark score which somberly reverberates throughout the film.

Superficially the story is about a troubled married couple from LA, languid ex-model Buffy and uptight actor, Harry (Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce), whose car breaks down leaving them stranded in the desert. They are rescued and taken in by the melancholic and volatile ‘Boy’ (Phoenix), whose wife died of a cancer caused by nuclear waste, leaving him suspicious of the poisonous world beyond his shack, and desirous of creating a new one.

What powers the action is the endless tension caused by values clashing and the escalating peril as Boy and Harry size each other up like rival lions. “You play Sodom and Gomorrah in LA with your parties and your crack and your Bentleys but you’re a fool if you don’t get your shit together,” rants Boy, who is solemnly preparing for this world’s end by secreting treasures of Western culture in an underground lair.

The thriller theme ‘out-of-towners trapped by nascent psychopath’ is filtered through a bickering chemistry that means the menacing atmosphere sometimes dissolves into absurdly comic character drama.

It’s a hot world courtesy of the relentless sun that keeps the couple at the mercy of Boy’s hospitality. Extra heat is drummed up by the chemistry between Boy and Buffy. Phoenix plays Boy with such sincerity it’s hard to call whether he’s unhinged or just a bit of a card. Davis pitches Buffy as an insouciant but warm free spirit taking adventure in her stride and naturally intrigued by her intense and openly lustful host. Meanwhile, the buttoned-up Harry falls into increasing rages as he faces how little his Hollywood cache matters in his current situation. Glaring over flaring nostrils, Pryce often resembles a cornered snake.

Sluizer introduces the film with a stool analogy in reference to how he has supported the narrative under the circumstances. Three features most prominently upholding the film are Pryce, Davis and Phoenix, whose talent and energy in sparring with each other are equally compelling and keep you wondering how each will end up.

Dark Blood is an offbeat film no one would call formally perfect, yet the depths it gutsily goes for and its strange vein of comedy make it one to think about and enjoy. Some critics have dubbed it an unfit legacy for Phoenix yet they miss the miraculous fact that two decades since his death, he has been brought back to us in one final guise. With great personal determination George Sluizer hung onto the footage and made something meaningful out of it. The result is a gift.

Reviewed on: 02 Mar 2013
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When a couple's car breaks down at an former nuclear test site they are rescued and imprisoned by a local hermit.

Director: George Sluizer

Writer: Jim Barton

Starring: River Phoenix, Jonathan Pryce, Judy Davis

Year: 2012

Runtime: 86 minutes

Country: US, UK, Netherlands


BIFF 2013
Glasgow 2014

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