A movie's premise might be its most important piece. If you have a killer premise, it's hard to make a movie any worse than mediocre; by contrast, if you have a terrible premise, it's hard to make a movie any better than mediocre. Wristcutters: A Love Story, based on a novella by Israeli writer and filmmaker Etgar Keret, has a killer premise. It's about the afterlife for suicides, and it's one of the best afterlife movies out there, better than What Dreams May Come (rating: 61) and The Lovely Bones, and up there with Albert Brooks's Defending Your Life (rating: 76).
Patrick Fugit plays Zia, who kills himself at the beginning of the movie. In narration, he explains that he killed himself in depression over breaking up with his girlfriend, whom we meet in flashbacks. After he arrives in the afterlife, he discovers, "Everything's the same here. It's just a little worse." He befriends Eugene, a character patterned on Eugene Hütz of the band Gogol Bordello, and when they're in his car they listen to Gogol Bordello songs. Zia learns that his girlfriend killed herself too, and decides to set out to find her, convincing Eugene to join him. Eventually, they meet Mikal, a hitchhiker who's trying to get back to the world of the living.
The cast is quite good, especially considering that one of the rules of their afterlife is that no one is permitted to smile. Fugit is a good center. Shea Wigham does his best not to make audiences wish that the real Eugene Hütz were playing Eugene. Erstwhile teen icon Shannyn Sossamon plays Mikal, displaying about as much range as she's capable. And Tom Waits lends a predictably kooky touch to the deathly surroundings, as he so often does. Cameos by Jake Busey, Will Arnett, Mark Boone Junior (of "Sons of Anarchy"), and John Hawkes (of "Deadwood") are brief but similarly welcome.
The key to this movie is in its little observations, many of which come from Keret but many of which were added by director Goran Dukic, who adapted the novella with his own screenplay. It was marketed as a comedy, but it isn't, really -- the audience isn't likely to smile much more broadly than the characters onscreen. It's not quite bleak, not quite depressing, not quite funny; instead, it's sincere, sweet, and astonishingly imaginative. Eugene's car has a black hole in the floor, into which sunglasses, tapes and cigarette lighters fall and disappear forever. Eugene's car's headlights don't work until they approach Waits's compound, where little miracles happen to occur. When we first meet people in this world, we see a brief visual explanation of how they killed themselves, and every glimpse of the world of the living is a brightly colored contrast to the drab, washed out panoramas of the afterlife. It's a remarkable trick that Dukic and cinematographer Vanja Cernjul manage: they manage to find a beauty in bleakness, of the barely changing view by the side of the road, the rocks and forests and sea.
It's small surprise that this movie failed to do well in theaters, considering how doggedly it resists a genre classification. It's a romantic comedy with no comedy and very little romance; it's a movie about death with very little death. (The previews on the DVD are all of horror films, which are about as appropriate as anything else.) That's all beside the point, though -- it's hard to imagine another movie quite like it.
Crossposted on Remingtonstein.
Follow Alex Remington on Twitter: www.twitter.com/alexremington