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Wristcutters: A Love Story   A

Autonomous Films / Halcyon Pictures

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Goran Dukic
Writer: Goran Dukic (based on the novella Kneller's Happy Campers by Etgar Keret)
Cast: Patrick Fugit, Shannyn Sossamon, Shea Whigham, Leslie Bibb, Mikal P. Lazarev, John Hawkes, Tom Waits.

Review by Rob Vaux

I go to bed each night praying for movies like Wristcutters to come along. Not everyone does, of course, and if they do, they might actually be praying for a different kind of film. The joy of it stems from being exactly, precisely on a given viewer's wavelength. Not their demographic; not their consumer preference; not their test-group vetted, thoroughly researched, inconceivably soulless marketing profile shared by as broad a slice of the population as possible. Their wavelength: that funky, irrepressibly human part of us that always recognizes a kindred spirit. If Wristcutters tried to appeal to everyone, it would end up appealing to no one. Instead, it focuses on its own unique voice, and trusts that those who want to hear it will follow. Indie films are supposed to honor such individuality, and when they succeed as well as this one, the medium takes a big step forward.

It also deserves props for marrying its wonderful concept so completely to its low-budget needs. Not since The Blair Witch Project has a film turned its bargain-basement production values into such a stylistic asset. The setting is a purgatorial afterlife -- the place where suicides go when they die -- which, in a bit of fiendish cosmic comeuppance, looks pretty much like our world does. The only difference? Everything is just a little shittier. The cities resemble bad neighborhoods in Barstow, while the countryside is an endless wasteland of beige desert. All the colors are washed-out, no one is able to smile, and the night sky remains depressingly free of stars. What better place to remind the successfully self-destructive how well they had it, and to keep them from ever trying to kill themselves again? ("The next place might be worse," one character confesses ruefully.)

The film works mainly as a delightful shaggy-dog examination of this Dantesque toilet bowl, delivered with black but surprisingly warmhearted humor. Our guide is a terminally befuddled slacker named Zia (Patrick Fugit), who opens up his veins in a funk over the love of his life (Leslie Bibb) and finds himself stuck in a whole new rut on the other side. He gets a job at a pizzeria and makes friends with Eugene (Shea Whigham), a Russian rock-and-roller who lives with his large family nearby (there are lots of Eastern Europeans around for some reason). But by and large, life here is just as pointless and depressing as the one he thought he was escaping. Then he hears word that his beloved former girlfriend has offed herself too, and he and Eugene hit the road in search of her, joined by a perky hitchhiker (Shannyn Sossamon) convinced that her presence here is some kind of bureaucratic mistake.

Though we never quite shake the threat of sliding into pretentious crap, writer-director Goran Dukic finds the perfect sense of delicacy to realize the film's potential. The characters don't moon about philosophy or ponder past mistakes. They just try to muddle through as best they can, constantly exposed to the exquisite irony of their condition and yet pressing onward in an effort to make the afterlife more bearable. Their immense likability never comes across as forced or phony, and the dark whimsy of the landscape they travel always finds new ways to surprise us. The humor comes coated in schadenfreude, yet never veers into the cruel, and the scenario's deeper message arrives quietly and without undue intrusion. Dukic finds sentimentality too -- showing how love can make all the crap we deal with worthwhile -- though he doesn't let it compromise the sarcastic glee upon which his unique little universe is founded.

If Wristcutters has a fault, it may be undue wandering: less concerned with telling a good story than in probing the nuances of its central conceit. But its tone is so pitch-perfect -- anchored by winning performances and blessed with a cohesion which never flags -- that a certain meandering quality feels worthwhile. Most importantly, its vision is wholly original, delivered with a singular sensibility more concerned with expressing itself properly than improving the bottom line. Far, far too few motion pictures these days come with that precious sense of identity: the quirky, irresistible call of someone with a cool idea that he'd like to share with us. For those who respond to Dukic's point of view, Wristcutters will rank among the best movies of the year. For those who don't, it still provides a hopeful sign that creative expression and originality haven't yet been lost... and that if this effort doesn't speak to you, sooner or later another one will come along which does.

Review published 10.30.2007.

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