In Twixt, Val Kilmer is a puffy shadow of his Top Gun self. This works perfectly for his character, Hall Baltimore, a burned-out, ponytailed horror novelist described early on as “bargain basement Stephen King.” Baltimore is unsettling, his keen gaze flipping between confident and shameful with disconcerting ease. His mercurial aspect is one of many disconcerting elements in a film that seems intent resisting even the possibility of cohesion.
Near the beginning of Francis Ford Coppola’s movie — now available on demand — Baltimore is pulled into some strange business, partnering up with Sheriff Bobby LaGrange (Bruce Dern), who has a serious case of crazy eyes, to investigate the murder of a child. Kilmer peppers his sad-sack shtick with flashes of charisma that reveal the movie star hidden beneath the padding. It’s tempting to conflate Kilmer with the character he portrays, his demeanor changing in chameleonic fashion to suit the situation: with the kooky deputy, he’s an unassuming everyman; with the unearthly waif named V, he’s a sensible hero.
V has the benefit of being played by Elle Fanning, with a beguiling mixture of composure and childishness. Baltimore first encounters her after putting back drinks instead of beginning his new novel, which leads to the first in a series of recurring, alcohol-addled dreams whose metaphysical status is never fully resolved. In these scenes, V leads Baltimore through a forest from which the color has been beautifully drained and re-accented in shades of red and blue, helping him uncover mysteries buried on top of murders in a deliciously complicated jumble.
Coppola handles these scenes in a fashion that is at once matter-of-fact and surreal. Baltimore’s reveries are purportedly inspired by one of Coppola’s own, and their odd logic, which connects disparate scenes with a brief image (the same ghostly tree) or a recurring phrase, rings true, even if it’s never quite clear to what. Some of the resonance might come from the parallels to Coppola’s own life, seemingly borrowed wholesale and used in an off-puttingly direct way, namely that Baltimore struggles with the past death of a child in a boating accident, the same way that Coppola lost a son in 1986.
There’s no knowing exactly what to make of this self-exposure, especially when juxtaposed with the magnificent pulpiness ofTwixt. I mean that as a compliment to the film, which has a tendency to frame macabre events with static shots and expressionist compositions, creating a world where just about anything could be reasonably expected. Nothing ever feels real (a Skype call between Baltimore and his wife is filmed from more angles than you would think possible), but nothing feels unreal either. Coppola brazenly flaunts the seams of his artifice, whether in a touch of red beneath Fanning’s eyes or in LaGrange’s collection of bathhouses and birdhouses (he takes care to point out the difference).
The result is a fiction whose arbitrariness and disregard for conventional pacing make it feel like work of a singular personality and all his idiosyncrasies. Fakeness can be a liberating element, and Coppola uses it here for all it’s worth, shifting techniques and color palettes on a whim, even including two 3D scenes. Working with talented cinematographer Mihai Malamaimare, Jr. (who also shot Coppola’s Tetro and Youth Without Youth), he moves from the candy-colored candor of the opening sequence — which speeds us through the too-picturesque town of Swann Valley and its various stomping grounds under the dulcet tones of Tom Waits’ narration — all the way to comic-book expressionism and then back again.
There’s never any lack of things to look at, which might be Twixt‘s saving grace, because the unfortunate truth is that it’s kind of boring. A side effect of Coppola’s grab-bag filming and writing is that it’s hard to be interested in a narrative that sacrifices meaning for sensation. A simpler way to say that might be that the film is not very good, which is arguably accurate, but also misses the point. The sheer magnitude of Coppola’s talent is overwhelming, because the conceits and metaphors that might seem contrived in other hands here actually work. We see it in a lakeside teenage hangout that’s at once terribly convincing and humorously gothic, and in a montage where a drunken Baltimore tries on different voices while writing and rewriting the first sentence of his novel.
That latter sequence is astonishingly funny, a bit of screwball that comes out of nowhere and is executed to middle-aged perfection by Kilmer. It is emblematic of the low-key humor that permeates this fairy tale and helps to leaven a mood that occasionally turns oppressive. Twixt stops just short of camp (though Ben Chaplin as an apparitional Edgar Allen Poe threatens to push it over the edge), displaying instead a mordant wit that punctuates the proceedings and underlines its absurdities with welcome self-consciousness.
Some directors mellow in their late careers while others amp up their eccentricities; somehow, Coppola seems to have done both. Twixt is a bizarre assemblage of techniques that’s at once amateurish and brilliant, lackadaisical and carefully controlled. It feels like a work of great promise from an up-and coming director, and the knowledge that Coppola already has a massive body of work under his belt makes for a fascinating cognitive dissonance that plays out within the film’s own blurry story of artistic reinvention. It’s uneven, frustrating, and every once in a while, exhilarating, and you probably don’t have to worry about looking stupid at a cocktail party if you choose to pass this one by. But man, this Coppola guy is one to watch.