There’s not really a nice way to call a film perfect for Redbox, but in the case of Tomorrow You’re Gone, it’s a sincere compliment. Arriving on DVD after a brief theatrical run, Tomorrow You’re Gone comes off as the sort of movie that was meant all along to end up as an unexpected treat selected at random from the anonymous B-movie fare available at your local gas station kiosk.
Many reviews have panned it for vague plotting and arthouse pretensions, though these are exactly the qualities that should be most desirable in a no-budget thriller like this one. What’s preferable, to see yet another forgettably rote hitman exercise directed with barebones competence, or a piece that aims for genuine atmosphere and memorable imagery? If you can get into the particular groove achieved by director David Jacobson and crew here, you may feel inclined to happily kiss away that third act.
Here’s a great lesson in low-budget moviemaking: if you can get an actor with as much star power and silky gravitas as Willem Dafoe to do two days of work on your set, be sure to get an opening voiceover out of him, too. Stephen Dorff’s inmate Charlie, about to be released, receives a letter from Dafoe’s character—named, gloriously, “The Buddha”—in the opening scene which, while reminding him of the debt he owes from a prison fight in which the Buddha intervened, includes a coded message instructing Charlie to perform a hit as payback. It’s an economical bit of filmmaking that sets up the main plot thread and stakes in two minutes with only one actor onscreen.
Almost nothing in the script makes any logical sense, from the circumstances of Charlie’s hit and eventual return to the scene of the crime, to the motivations of Michelle Monaghan’s amorous hooker archetype. Why take such an intense interest in a monosyllabic thug? She calls him Samson and comes on strong even before they’ve gotten past their meet-mute on the bus.
The script fizzles out after Charlie’s return to the scene of the crime in the so-called climax, which features another brief appearance by Dafoe’s Buddha, the sort of confrontation which would disappoint more if the film had built toward it much at all. Instead, the abrupt cut to credits arrives at a moment of serenity after a film full of troubled silences—for this sort of film, the only appropriate ending. Still, no points for a devilish end-game twist.
It’s in the uncanny details of a hallucinatory fugue that the film truly distinguishes itself. Lesser thrillers have pulled the “all a dream!” conceit by playing everything straight until the appropriate third-act moment of revelation; while Tomorrow You’re Gone never explicitly acknowledges that what goes on in the aftermath of Charlie’s release is a dream, it’s obvious throughout that what the viewer sees should be treated with skepticism.
Throwaway shots like one of raindrops on a car window are played backwards. Images and scenes ripple throughout the film. An early violent fantasy foreshadows how a critical scene unfolds. Monaghan’s Florence briefly dons a wig and creates a doppelganger that flickers in and out of Charlie’s vision. A character crumples to the ground, out of view, and makes no sound. With this film, Jacobson accomplishes one of the more sustained evocations of dream logic in recent American cinema.
Jacobson also possesses a playful sort of film geek-literacy that results in a number of spot-the-reference moments. Monaghan’s blonde doppelganger seems a clear callback to Lost Highway, whose second half seems a direct inspiration for the film as a whole. The straightforward, minimal plotting also recalls classic noir and another film that served as a clear predecessor to Lynch’s, Arthur Ripley’s 1946 The Chase, which was rather more explicit in its dream narrative but no less mannered and effective. A particular hallucination in Florence’s apartment seems inspired by Videodrome, and the list goes on.
Jacobson previously adapted Down in the Valley, a smarmily postmodern take on the Western that posited Edward Norton as a psychotic wannabe cowboy in present-day Los Angeles. That too demanded a strong grasp of genre history, but its ambitions were loftier than Tomorrow’s minimalist stylistics. The thriller seems a better outlet for these sort of meta-cinematic games.
Extras: Nada, unless you get a real kick out of those Spanish subtitles. Barebones as they come, Tomorrow You’re Gone’s DVD release is rental-designed.