River Phoenix died at in 1993 at just 23 years of age, and to a certain generation of then-teenage movie fans, of whom this writer was one, it was maybe the first of that kind of celebrity death, the kind you remember where you were when you heard about it. I was in a car with my mom, and I recall the radio report ended with a mention of Federico Fellini‘s death the same day (at 73 the Italian director, despite his greatness, was always going to be the Farrah Fawcett to Phoenix’s Michael Jackson in the coincidental celebrity death stakes). Now 20 years on, the Berlin Film Festival is showing Phoenix’s last film, “Dark Blood,” by Dutch director George Sluizer (the original “The Vanishing” and his vastly inferior American remake) in unfinished form, and it makes for surprisingly thought-provoking viewing.
It appears to be a labor of love, or perhaps of remembrance for Sluizer who rescued the existing footage in 1999 after the insurance company had ordered it burned. But it wasn’t until ten years later that the director, following a brush with death himself, decided to “finish” the film. How to do that, though, when it featured one deceased actor and two others who were nearly two decades older than they were when the film was shot?
Sluizer’s metaphor, which he relays to us in touching, Herzog-ian voiceover (we know they’re different nationalities, but the melancholy is the same) is that he took “a chair with just two legs” and gave it three, so that it could stand upright, “but the fourth leg will always be missing.” And so the film bridges the gaps in footage by freeze-framing while Sluizer in voicover reads the action and dialogue that would have occurred at this point from the script. It’s an interesting device, one that feels entirely respectful – it’s possible that Sluizer could have gone a more sophisticated route to try and paper over these absences, but in drawing our attention to them he instead makes absence and lack an inescapable part of the experience. So by the end, while the story is complete in our minds, the film is resolutely, always and forever, unfinished.
Movie star Harry (Jonathan Pryce) and his wife, ex-Playboy bunny Buffy (Judy Davis), leave their kids in LA to take a trip to the desert in their vintage Bentley. Following a breakdown in a zone formerly used for bomb testing, they come across Boy (River Phoenix), an isolated and paranoid loner who fixates on Buffy and quickly devolves from being their saviour to their tormentor and captor. So far, so B-movie, and that’s what the film would have been had fate, and a load of drugs at the Viper Room, not intervened: not bad, not great but a nicely-played three hander that would have been neither a jewel nor a black spot on any of their CVs.There really can be no better evidence of how “it wasn’t supposed to end this way” – this is a film you do if you are flush in the confidence that there will be many more to come.
But as it is now, the movie is lent far more layers of significance by its status as a memento mori, or act of necrophilia, depending on how you feel about it. We truly felt a strange frisson of shock at seeing Phoenix on screen again, alive and young and so very beautiful, after all these years and *spoiler* his character’s death scene did give us chills at certain points.*spoiler ends* It’s a good performance, one entirely in keeping with Phoenix’s career to that date: he often played the outsider, someone damaged and untrusting, and here he invests Boy with a certain twitchy humanity that makes even his insanity seem somehow more honest than Harry and Buffy’s casual urban arrogance (and Davis and Pryce are great foils).
But that said, the greatest achievement of “Dark Blood” is one Phoenix never could have imagined. In becoming not just a film, but a story of a film, and a memorial to a dead star, here Sluizer’s work also tells us a lot about cinema and the odd kind of unsatisfying immortality it can confer. It’s a fitting and ironic tribute to a life ended before it could be finished. [B]