Director: Vadim Perelman
Starring: Uma Thurman, Evan Rachel Wood, Eva Amurri, Brett Cullen, Gabrielle Brennan
Running Time: 90 minutes
*** (out of ****)
Is it possible for a single performance to save a film? After witnessing Evan Rachel Wood’s transcendent work in director Vadim Perelman’s sophomore effort, The Life Before Her Eyes I’ve come to the conclusion that it can. While I always considered her a fine actress, now I’m starting to wonder whether she’s even better than that and could, in a few years time, emerge as one of the greats if she makes the right choices. All three of those stars you see above are for Wood and as tempting as it is to use this entire space to talk about her performance, I’m also obligated to talk about the film it's in, which is a far cry from it in quality. But that hardly makes a difference. She provides all the depth and complexity necessary and because of her a controversial ending that could come off as manipulative instead becomes strangely moving.
I could see many complaining the final minutes (which I won’t give away) are a cheat but I’d argue it’s not on the basis that the film is plainly obvious with its intentions and doesn’t hide anything. The worst way you could approach this is as a mystery thriller, going around telling everyone you “guessed the ending” It's not about the ending, or at least it shouldn't be. That’s why it’s so disappointing to hear Perelman refer to his film in interviews as a “psychological thriller,” although if he he really believes that it could offer up a possible explanation for its flaws. As a mystery it fails, but as a coming-of-age drama and a meditation on how traumatic experiences shape our lives, it works well. In 2003 Perelman directed House of Sand and Fog, a somber effort that made me think and feel. This one made me feel much more than it made me think, but in doing so effectively paints a portrait of how one tragic incident can have a ripple effect that lasts lifetimes.
Everyone has certain things that make them uncomfortable if depicted on screen. For me just about the only thing I have difficulty watching is school shootings and I almost avoided the film altogether because of it. I can sit through pretty much any “torture porn” horror movie without flinching but barely made it through Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. Something about them disturbs me on the deepest level. I’m not sure whether it’s the cruel randomness, the unpredictability or realism. It’s probably a combination of all three with some other factors thrown in, but luckily we don’t see many, which is a relief considering the amount we get in real life. Unfortunately, I picked a bad one to watch because as far as fictional school shootings go, they don't get much more horrifying than what we see in the opening and closing minutes of this film.
The movie begins in a high school bathroom, where it also ends. Wild, free-spirited Diana (Wood) and her best friend the conservative Christian Maureen (Eva Amurri) are involved in a Columbine-like school shooting. The girls coil in terror as the shots ringing out in the hallway grow closer and the gunman enters the bathroom announcing he will only kill one of them. They have a split-second decision to make, an intriguing moral dilemma we won't discover the full result of until the final scenes.Flash-forward 15 years and the adult Diana’s (Uma Thurman) seemingly perfect life is unraveling as she wrestles with survivor guilt on the anniversary of the shooting. She’s married to philosophy professor, Paul (Brett Cullen) with whom she shares a rambunctious daughter Emma (Gabrielle Brennan) but can’t appreciate anything because she’s never shaken the tragic events of that day. And that’s really all that can be said about that timeline without giving too much away.
This is a tale of two films. One is a moving, coming-of-age drama in the vain of The Virgin Suicides while the other comes off as a lackluster TV movie of the week. It isn’t exactly clear whether the flashback or the flash forward represents the present day until late in the film, but what’s abundantly clear right away is that one of these stories is so far superior to the other that’s it feels like a completely different motion picture experience. The script jumps back and forth constantly between them but luckily the flashback story gets more face time, or maybe it doesn’t, but just feels like it because it’s so strong.
Forget about just being believable as best friends, Wood and Amurri share such great chemistry their characters come across as genuine soulmates bonded for life. They’re interesting, exciting people with goals and have real problems teenagers would actually face. I was hanging on every word they said and as much of a let-down as the other half of the picture was I can’t say this portion was shortchanged at all. It does explore the details leading up to the shooting and invests the supporting players with considerable depth, like the school shooter himself (an effectively creepy John Magaro) and a kind-hearted, true intentioned science teacher who time has passed by. In just a glance or single line of dialogue Wood conveys everything: Diana’s disappointments, her anger and the woman she hopes to eventually become. She expertly crafts Diana’s hard outer shell but subtly hints at someone else inside secretly wanting to burst through, capable of great things if she could just make it through this rough period in her teenage life.
First-timer Emil Stern’s script does the miscast Uma Thurman no favors by making Diana’s adult life a complete drag. There’s a good reason for it and given the ending I understand and even advocate the necessity of this plotline but that doesn’t make it go down any easier. Her husband’s a bore, her daughter’s a brat and when the film takes a trip into supernatural territory it’s somewhat of an unwelcome diversion. Thurman’s material is just so much weaker than Wood’s that despite a good effort she's fighting an uphill battle. Besides baring no physical resemblance at all to her younger counterpart they don’t even seem to share any of the same mannerisms and in a movie focusing on the same character in two different timelines, that’s a pretty big deal.
Perelman’s insistence on pushing this as a supernatural thriller in the third act instead of the character study it truly is hurts the film, but fortunately it punishes the far weaker adult Diana storyline. The younger plotline is so well scripted and acted its basically impervious to any of Perelman’s questionable decisions. And I hope you like flowers and water because there’s non-stop imagery of it throughout the picture, but it does perfectly compliment the tone. It’s also hard to complain when everything is so lushly shot by cinematographer Pawel Edelman and well scored by an unusually restrained James Horner. This is a slow-moving, meditative picture that requires some effort from the viewer, yet at times you just have to let go, allowing everything to wash over you to get the full feeling of the experience.
The conclusion sends your heart into your throat, not because of its supposed “shock” twist ending, but because Wood and the almost equally impressive Amurri made me care what would happen to these girls. That’s why its so frustrating that Perelman tries to present the film as something other than what it is. The twist itself isn’t important, so much as what it MEANS. Wood makes us feel that and in doing so finds an emotional truth the director and screenwriter couldn’t fully provide. All the movie had to do was lay all its cards on the table initially rather than succumb to unnecessary M. Night Shyamalan syndrome and Wood would have taken care of the rest. It's actually almost advantageous to know the twist going otherwise it ends up being all you focus on.
It’s rare you see such a massive disconnect between a performance and the film featuring it. Wood's work here is the kind you see in a Best Picture nominee not one plagued with the creative issues this has. It won’t get the credit it deserves not only because of the film’s tepid reception but also because we’re starting to take her talent for granted. She’s cornered the market on the high school wild child role so well that we sometimes forget how brilliant she is at it. But she brought a different kind of maturity this time that we haven’t seen from her in movies like Dow In The Valley and Across The Universe. And in doing that, the film, despite its problems, the film really explore the ACTUAL CONSEQUENCES of a school shooting. Or I should say she explores it in spite of the obstacles the filmmakers put in front of her.
It would have been nice if the picture were as strong as Wood's work but given the choice between getting this performance or the film reaching its full potential, I’ll take her performance. Days later I couldn’t shake certain scenes, all of which were hers. That the movie still couldn’t get where it needed to because gimmicky screenwriting wouldn’t let it, shows how difficult it is to execute this genre well. I’d be interested to read Laura Kasischke's novel from which this is based to find out just how much Wood brought to the screen that wasn’t present on the page. I’m guessing a whole lot. The Life Before Her Eyes demonstrates that even when certain films don’t work like they should, they can still be endlessly fascinating. More importantly for Wood, maybe now I can finally move past that whole Marilyn Manson thing.