Ellen Barkin puts on a bold, candid performance in Cam Archer's "Shit Year," but the enigmatic movie is composed of too many fragments to sustain her efforts. An experimental account of fictional actress Colleen West, this obsessively non-linear character snapshot never settles down and consequently loses focus. The sum of its parts is both imaginative and emotionally remote.
[Editor's Note: This review was originally published during indieWIRE's coverage of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. It opens at New York's IFC Center today, September 21.]
Shot on grainy 16mm, the black-and-white story drifts around through several disconnected parts, all of which put Barkin front and center. While she constantly displays a rawness and depth to the character, the big picture never comes together. It appears that Archer had too many good ideas without a proper strategy for stitching them together. Colleen emerges in a handful of unrelated segments: She develops a budding relationship with a young man, receives a visit from her brother (Bob Einstein) in her country home, and apparently also exists in some alternate dimension of her own making.
The latter bit has Barkin sitting in a barren white "information room" right out of "The Matrix" and attempting to participate in some form of virtual reality simulation related to her real life. That's not the only confusing digression - although at least it has hip appeal on its own. At one point, Barkin floats a guitar in her bathtub. The symbolism, if that's the word for it, doesn't fail in individual moments; instead, it lacks a full-bodied justification, which is worse. The resulting mess deadens the dramatic potential.
While I admire Archer's attempt to tackle the well-worn path of the fading superstar narrative with ingenuity, his high-minded conceits muddy the vitality of Barkin's performance. She spends much of the running time bemoaning her life in abstract terms with little to no wider context. It's like Norma Desmond of "Sunset Boulevard" wandered into an avant-garde labyrinth and couldn't find a way out.
"Sunset Boulevard" benefited from a lively style that turned its statement about aging celebrity into a highly engaging commentary on the nature of fame. "Shit Year," as indicated by the title, sticks to an intensely grim approach from start to finish. Dreary philosophical obsessions with mortality permeate the dialogue ("It's kinda like the end of everything and the start of nothing," "I'm surrounded by a world of nothing"). Barkin remains the single virtue that carries "Shit Year" through to the end, particularly in a final close-up that defines the movie's sole appeal. At the very least, it seems appropriate that the main attraction of a movie about a star is the star herself.