Judge Clark Douglas, President of the United States, keeps having this weird dream where he is just some ordinary guy who writes DVD reviews.
"We've lost the plot!"—A crazed gunman in Slipstream
A Dream within a Dream
Take this kiss upon the brow!
I stand amid the roar
-- Edgar Allen Poe
Facts of the Case
How on earth to go about describing the plot of this film? The back of the DVD case supplies a more reasonable starting point than anything in the film itself, so permit me to share it with you:
"Written, directed and starring Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins (Remains of the Day), and featuring a top-notch cast, Slipstream is an exciting and inventive drama about life and death—and everything in-between. Aging screenwriter Felix Bonhoeffer (Hopkins) has lived his life in two states of existence: reality and his own interior world. While working on a murder mystery screenplay, Felix becomes baffled as his characters start appearing in his life, and his life starts slipping into his characters. Soon, he is thrown into a vortex where dreams, time and reality collide in an increasingly whirling slipstream."
Yes, it's all a dream within a dream. Within that dream within a dream, there is a door. Open it, step inside the room, walk to the kitchen sink, get sucked down the drain, fly through the air, find yourself buried underground, struggle to the surface, and then find yourself standing at the kitchen sink again. Only the sink looks different, and not like a sink at all, even though you're quite sure that it is the same sink you were at before. Wait, what's that? You were only dreaming. Of course you were only dreaming that you were only dreaming, but are you dreaming that? This struggle between the conscious and the subconscious, between illusion and reality, is the subject of Anthony Hopkins' Slipstream.
The movie is one of the most strange and inventive films of recent times, and it's like everything you've ever seen and nothing you've ever seen. It's Federico Fellini as directed by David Lynch and Tony Scott, filtered through the comic style of Woody Allen and the horror films of Val Lewton, all while…oh, never mind all that. In recent years, we have seen numerous films that use dream-like logic in the telling of a strange and bizarre story (David Lynch's Mulholland Drive being one of the most notable examples). While Slipstream is superficially just another one of these maddeningly incoherent yet fascinating head trips, it's also got something in its tone that is drastically different.
Unlike so many other directors who attempt to commit the ramblings of their subconscious to film, Hopkins does not strive to give the audience any great revelation or deep truth about the nature of reality. Hopkins does not attempt to reach out to audience and pull them in, he's simply offering them the opportunity to go along if they'd like to. Admittedly, this approach is certainly going to abandon many viewers waiting for a great epiphany to come along and reveal the meaning behind everything…but adventurous viewers out there with an open mind are going to be in for something fascinating and surprisingly funny.
Yes, I said funny. On more than a few occasions, Slipstream becomes a wildly inventive satirical farce, offering sharp observations on Hollywood, writing, dreams, movies, and movies about Hollywood, writing, dreams, and movies. As I watched the film, I grew increasingly excited. Hopkins gets wilder, faster, more creative, funnier, sharper, and grows increasingly coherent and insightful in moments when he shouldn't be. How does he manage this? I think the key to the success of Slipstream is in the tone, best described by Hopkins himself: "I did it as a little joke."
You see, the film seems to be taking place at two different speeds, in two different tones. There's the external side, what you see on screen. It moves fast and furious, zipping from place to place in a complex and extraordinarily complicated manner. This external side is pure chaos, rooted in that freewheeling dream logic in which the rules are impossible to define. Then there's the second side of the film, the long invisible arc that hangs like an umbrella over the action taking place in the film. The story is frenzied and chaotic, but there's a very tangible sense that the story is being presented in a very calm, warm, and cheerfully good-natured manner. The puppets look like horribly tortured creations, but the puppeteer is a jolly joker with a wink and smile.
What about those puppets, anyway? Well, they all perform their parts quite well. Hopkins was able to put together a very noteworthy supporting cast, and everyone bites into their roles with conviction (despite the fact that several actors claimed to have no idea of what was going on). Christian Slater (True Romance) is engaging as a noir-like gangster who literally dies of overacting, and Jeffrey Tambor (Hellboy) is quite wonderful in a low-key role as Slater's partner. Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile) is strong in a few key scenes as an actor who is killed in a film-within-the-film, and John Turturro (Miller's Crossing) is milk-spewing-through-your-nose hilarious in one of the most over-the-top performances I've ever seen. Hopkins himself doesn't really act so much as react, wandering through the movie like a lost child, bewildered by his strange surroundings. Isn't it that way with most dreams? We usually aren't leading them, we're being led along a path that we can't seem to change or control.
There are so many moments in this film that may take more than one viewing to catch. I'm not sure of what they all mean, just as I'm not sure of what all the strange elements of my dreams mean, but they stick with you. Characters in the film discuss Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and lo and behold, the star of that film (Kevin McCarthy) soon turns up. Of course, he doesn't know that he was the star of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but Felix is more than willing to tell him. Michael Lerner of Barton Fink turns up in one moment and has a brief conversation with Turturro, who also starred in Barton Fink, which was another movie about the troubled mind of a screenwriter. Do these moments sound irritating or fascinating to you? Your answer to that question may very well determine whether or not you will be able to tolerate Slipstream.
The film is certainly a polarizing one, and Hopkins certainly intended it to be that way. In an absolutely marvelous audio commentary, Hopkins discusses the reviews of the critics, and seems pleased that he has made most of them quite angry. He intends the film as a provocative experience, and tells us that we can "take it or leave it." The commentary is immensely insightful and fascinating, as Hopkins discusses his ideas behind the film at great length. Some viewers may get a great sense of comfort listening to the commentary, realizing that Hopkins absolutely knows what he is doing, even if he can't explain everything. The commentary has very few pauses; Hopkins seems to have such genuinely passionate love for this film. In terms of extras, there's also a fifteen-minute making-of featurette that is really quite good, and lets us hear from the other participants in the making of the movie. Three deleted scenes are also interesting. Two are very brief scenes of Turturro acting wild, and the third is a ten-minute dialogue sequence that is good, but a bit more sedate in tone than the rest of this frenzied film. Finally, no less than 13 different trailers are onhand. Four are for other films starring Hopkins, three are for special edition DVDs, and the other six are for recent theatrical releases.
The film also looks and sounds excellent. The movie is all over the map visually, using everything from classical black-and-white to grainy and desaturated grit. The movie pulls out just about every color under the sun, and it's been given a very nice transfer that lets this visually vibrant movie shine. The sound mix is nearly as complex and chaotic as the visuals, once again recalling the work of Tony Scott on films like Domino. Hopkins' original score blends it quite well with the dialogue and sound effects. It's a lovely atmospheric work with some occasional crazy piano passages, showing yet another surprising side of Hopkins' talent.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As enthusiastic as the evidence I have presented is, I suppose it also works well enough as a rebuttal due to it's sheer lack of general coherence. It's nearly impossible to discuss Slipstream in ordinary technical terms. I imagine that just about all the conversations people have had regarding the film have been centered around confused frustration or bewildered fascination. Think of a confusing movie…any confusing movie, just call one out. Okay, got it? Slipstream probably makes whatever movie you just named seem perfectly sensible. It's the sort of film that would never, ever get made without the involvement and financial backing of a big star like Hopkins, and that's because not too many people are interesting in seeing someone else's mental leakage. There's a pretty small crowd for this sort of thing, and I imagine that you know whether or not you are a part of it.
I've long considered Anthony Hopkins to be one of my favorite actors. He's such a subtle actor, he is almost always absolutely convincing in every role he plays. If I had to guess what kind of films Hopkins might make as director, I suppose I would have imagined him taking a cue from some of the wonderful films he has starred in like Shadowlands or Remains of the Day. Instead, the 69-year-old actor has given us a film made with boundless creativity and reckless energy, giving us entirely different reasons to admire him as a director than we already do as an actor. Those of timid imagination should do everything possible to stay of out Slipstream, but if you think your mind is up to a wild ride of limitless possibilities, get on board and buckle your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night.
This court is adjourned until further notice, due to the realization that the jury was only a figment of the judge's imagination.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with director Anthony Hopkins
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