[2 November 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
WRISTCUTTERS: A LOVE STORY (dir. Goran Dukic)
Suicide is a slippery cinematic slope. Introduce it into a narrative and you imply issues you may not be willing to deal with and consequences that are next to impossible to fully illustrate. Self destruction contains too many indecipherable facets to completely capture within a standard 90-minute film. Trying to force the angst driven act into a comedy therefore seems unfathomably foolish. And yet all of these wasted days and wasted nights notions are used to intriguing effect by the Indie dark comedy Wristcutters: A Love Story. Focusing on a paranormal plane where suicide victims go to wait out their undetermined destiny, Goran Dukic’s quirky, original effort is marred by a sense of plaintive precociousness. But if you get to the meat of his meaning, you’ll find an uplifting tale on your hands.
After carefully cleaning his room and organizing his affairs, Zia takes a razor to his wrists. His girlfriend has left him, and his life seems extra pointless. Unfortunately, the supposed finality of his desperation leads to an afterlife way station where other suicides spend eternity toiling away at meaningless jobs. Lucky enough to befriend an entire Russian family, Zia spends his days making pizza and wondering what went wrong. When he learns that his gal pal offed herself as well, he decides to go on a journey to find her. Corralling his Ruskie rock star friend Eugene into driving him, they head off onto a nameless road. Along the way they pick up Mikal, a recent arrival who claims she’s been unfairly brought to this dimension. She’s looking for the PICs—the People in Charge—to right the wrong. Eventually, they wind up at a magical commune run by Kneller…and smack dab into the middle of a battle with a false Messiah who wants dominion over the perplexed populace.
Though it goes a bit wonky toward the end and seems to travel a very long way to drive home a rather simple point, Wristcutters: A Love Story remains a wonderfully evocative experience. Part sci-fi, part emo shoe gazing, it’s the perfect companion piece for the cynical, post-millennial Gen-“?” crowd. Anyone whose lived more than, say, 25 years on and in the real world known as planet Earth will have a hard time relating to the aimless romanticism presented, and there are aspects of writer/director Dukic’s vision that run head long into aggravating artistic dead-ends, but when the filmmaker is motoring, the journey is a joy to behold. By setting up his own unique universe, inventing rules that help supplement and support the points he’s making, he finds a way to take troubling subject matter and make it open and inviting.. This doesn’t mean everyone will get it, but if you pay close enough attention, you can see the message hiding among the deadpan performances and grim gray landscapes.
While the notion that suicide leads to a post-existence world of mindless bureaucratic doldrums has been done before (Beetlejuice more or less covered that topic), Dukic’s does offer up something that smacks of originality. This button down, going nowhere fast ante-existence definitely reeks of the way we view our current career choices, but by adding the logistically limiting factor of self-destruction, we get a much narrower view of said rat race. As part of his particular philosophy, Dukic’s doesn’t have many problems with conformity. All throughout Wristcutters, we see the status quo supported and celebrated—that is, until it becomes a bit like brainwashing. Indeed, the amazingly mixed message offered could be best described as “learn how to be yourself, so that you can better assimilate into a world overwrought with such individualized perceptions.” Neat.
This is best personified by Eugene. While he definitely diddles to his own drummer, the former frontman for a failed Euro-Czech fusion band believes in tradition. That’s why his whole family wound up in Wristcutters’ weird realm. They just couldn’t imagine a life without each other. Zia, on the other hand, struggles against such ideals. For him, parents are a pitfall, someone you have to answer for and explain your purpose to. When he meets Mikal, he constantly chides her desire to change her lot in (after)life. Yet he’s after his ex-girlfriend, hoping to rekindle in this plane the connections he created in the real world. There are some sobering, insightful conversations about these topics sprinkled across Wristcutters’ road movie moxie. It helps get us over some of the film’s more bonkers, blank verse variables.
Unlike other films of this type, where specific rules and regulations are used as a foundation for their satire/social commentary, Dukic appears to be making much of this up as he goes along. While it is based on a short story by Etgar Keret, Wristcutters tends to wander off into its own insular parallels. When we finally meet up with Kneller and his magic commune, we wonder why the movie took us here. While on the move, the narrative was taking us along for the ride. But the minute we see the cult buster laying prone in the middle of the road (expertly played by musician turned madman, Tom Waits) he distracts us from the other character’s purpose. And then the whole third act mirrors the same cinematic switcheroo. We want to see what happens to Zia, Eugene, and Mikal. The added influence of Kneller’s crusade, a failed Jim Jones, and his psycho sect seem widely out of place—even if the ending tries to divine a purpose to it all.
Thankfully, whenever we feel flummoxed, the actors step up and deliver some creative comfort. Though he still resembles his Almost Famous teenage persona, Patrick Fugit fills out the angst driven needs of Zia quite nicely. He’s never too morose, and tends to equalize his ennui with a cutting sense of humor. Shannyn Sossamon, on the other hand, has an eerie, otherworldly quality that makes her Mikal seem that much more out of place. While she tends to play her scenes with a kind of ballsy, no bullshit attitude, we can sense there is something really troubling inside her. For the role of the heavily accented Eugene, Tallahassee native Shea Whigham gets good and lost. From the Eastern Bloc hairdo to the tongue tied way of speaking, he never once delivers a false note. And then there’s Waits. Using his magnificent rasp for all its inherent wisdom and indulgence, he turns a nothing part into something quite solid.
As for Dukic, he deserves some legitimate praise along with the clear criticisms. Maintaining such a surreal cinematic place for an entire motion picture takes talent, and even when he slips and lets the surface show, he manages to clear things up quite nicely. Like dozens of stories that came before, this movie does speak to a demo driven underground and dismissed for their lack of commitment and agenda. So is there any argument as to why an aimless tale of a directionless dude traveling along an inexact landscape wouldn’t resonate with post-university pawns? Wristcutters is practically reading their mind. Indeed, if you are under 30 and free from the adult reality tenets that tie one down, this film will feel like a revelation. Others already jaded might not find the same connection. Wristcutters: A Love Story is definitely bold and audacious—and avoids killing itself in the process.