Wristcutters: A Love Story
Perhaps the most pressing question that has ever intrigued mankind is what happens after death. Almost every religion has laid claim to an understanding and medical science has dutifully investigated the accounts of people brought back after a clinical death. With so many people concerned with this topic there is little wonder that it has been the theme of more than several works of literature, films and even television programs. You can take a straight forward approach to the subject but that usually turns out to much for an audience. Therefore many of the most original and interesting treatments have been in the genre of the dark comedy. The latest film by Croatian born writer and director Goran Dukic takes such a darkly humorous look at the after life. Even the name of the film reflects this mood; ‘Wristcutters: A Love Story’. As a long time fan of dark comedy this film fits in well with the greats of the genre including ‘Purgatory House’ by Cindy Baer and the thought provoking play ‘Steambath’ by Burt Brinckerhoff. All share one thing in common; the afterlife is not what you expected or even desired. ‘Wristcutters’ like ‘Purgatory House’ concentrates on one part of the dead population, suicides. People who feel life is so painful, so meaningless that they decide to end it all are in for a rube awakening within the confines of this screenplay. Dukic, working off a script he based on the novella ‘Kneller's Happy Campers’ by Etgar Keret retains the dark yet humorous look at the most desperate segment of humanity.
Dukic has personalized the story by basing a few characters on people he ahs known. This does move away from the source material but also allows Dukic as writer and director to connect more intimately with the story. The script offers such a bleak existence for people committing suicide that most come to the conclusion that no matter how bad they though live was it beats the alternative. Purgatory filled with suicides may be an unusual setting for a love story but the use of the genre to its fullest makes it work. The thing with dark humor is the subject matter is often considered ‘delicate’ so the typical jokes just will not play out. The humor here is based on the absurdity of the situation and the hopelessness of the characters. We can laugh because we are still among the living. On the directorial side Dukic paces the film very well. One caveat is the ending lacks some satisfaction but that might work when placed in context. Dukic allows his excellent cast free rein to ply their craft. He seems to trust the actors sufficiently to let them run with how their characters develop. While watching there is no feeling that the director pushed them; he guided them to giving great performances. Most important is the setup is so well done that the audience rapidly accepts the premise allowing them to be receptive to the rest of the film.
It is morning and Zia (Patrick Fugit) lies awake in bed. He replays the record on the player and sets about straightening up his overly messy room and makes his bed. After cleaning every surface and vacuuming every surface of his room he goes into the bathroom, stares at himself in the mirror a little while and cuts his wrists killing himself. Just before he dies his last sight is a bit of dust in the corner his cleaning binge missed. He just broke up with his girlfriend Desiree (Leslie Bibb) and is certain that she cried at his funeral. For Zia there are no fluffy heavenly clouds or even the flames of perdition. He winds up in a wasteland with others that have taken their own lives. Shortly after winding up there he gets a job in ‘Kamikaze Pizza’; his death is even more boring and meaningless than the life he left behind. He manager of the pizza place even set Zia up with a room which he shares with an Austrian, Erik (Abraham Benrubi). They have the usually ridiculous roommate arguments over things like Erik’s insistence that Zia sit during urination. The only thing that prevents him from trying to kill himself again is the possibility of winding up in an even worse place. At a bar he is approached by a young woman, Tania (Azura Skye) and her friend Rachel (Sarah Roemer). They like to play a little game of figuring out how someone killed themselves. When Zia shows the scars on his wrists Tania announces that she gets three points. Zia joins them in guessing the suicide methods of others; after all there is nothing better to pass the endless time.
At the bar they meet Eugene (Shea Whigham) a rock musician who killed himself by electrocuting himself on stage pouring a beer onto his guitar. Zia is befriended by Eugene who lives with his parents, also suicides, naturally. One day Zia runs into an old friend Brian (Jake Busey) who informs him that Desiree killed herself shortly Zia’s funeral. Zia decides that he has to find here. Zia and Eugene take off on a road trip across the desolate landscape. A few days after they start they pick up a hitchhiker, Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon) who is trying to find the people in charge; she just wants to go home. At night they look up at a starless nights. Mikal has heard that the people in charge where all white outfits. She is still sure that she was there due to a mistake. The trio makes there way cross country meeting numerous strange and depressing people and ultimately find Desiree who has become involved with a self styled Messiah (Will Arnett). It seems that the after life is more complicated than anyone thought.
There are some nice, subtle touches and little sight gags that run through the film. There always seems to be some warning signs around. In the bathroom at work there is one saying employees must wash their hands although the phrase about it being the law is taped over. The three take a swim next to a sign warning ‘no trespasser’ and no one seems to pay attention to the no smoking signs. I guess if you are already dead then second hand smoke is a bit of a moot point. You never see money exchange hands but there appears to be enough alcohol, tobacco and pot to go around. This is only fair; if you are stuck in purgatory you should have to worry about making ends meet. Dukic has created a bleak dusty universe for these people to exist in. There is nothing that can make people feel the glimmer of joy. Even when they are drinking or smoking pot it offers no real escape from their predicament. Also be on the look out for jokes in the smaller props. Zia is reading a romance novel called ‘The Girl with No Scars’ and the beer that Eugene uses in his flashy suicide is ‘Dead Guy Ale’. It is little touches like this that demonstrates the commitment to creating a world for the story to reside.
There is something that makes this film very special; it plays against its own type. On the surface it seems to be a desolate view of the after life but any convinced of this needs to take a longer look. Eugene is reunited with his family. Sure they all killed themselves but they managed to carve out a little piece of family life there in the netherworld. Both Zia and Mikal are hopeful. He is certain that he will be with the love of his life and she believes that someone is in charge and will release her. Mikal’s part is a lot like the main character in ‘Steambath’ who will make every effort to talk God into changing his mind. She needs to know if her drug overdose was accidental is it really on the same level as suicide? It is amazing that this is the freshman effort of Dukic as writer and director. He has a control here that comes across as natural. He has already distinguished himself from the growing pack of Indy writer-directors.
The cast of this film is exceptional. Fugit brings is ‘A’ game to this production. He is one of those actors that, unfortunately, most people don’t place on any top lists. He is consistently excellent in his roles demonstrating a full understanding and empathy for his characters. Shea Whigham plays the sidekick here in a fashion that makes him interesting instead of just a foil for the main characters. When you look over quirky roles for actresses one name has to come up, Shannyn Sossamon. She is quietly beautiful with more depth than most the bubble header actresses in the business now. She has an intensity that leaps off the screen. Even the smaller roles have great actors. Azura Skye is another off beat actress that works well in her part. Leslie Bibb is the perfect counterpoint for the sullen Ms Sossamon. She is the perky blond but it has to be remembered that she was damaged too. Both Bibb and Fugit have had roles on television’s ER. There is another alumnus of that series in the person of Abraham Benrubi.
Once again Lion’s Gate steps up to the plate bringing the art house into your home. This film was nominated for such awards as the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Independent Spirit Award for best first feature and first screenplay and deserved a lot more. This will certainly become an instant cult classic. It is quirky and dry witted and one of the more imaginative films in years.