Is Judge Gordon Sullivan mad or creative?
Once the nightmares begin, the terror never ends.
One of the great stories of twentieth century literature involves Irish author James Joyce, whose daughter suffered from severe mental illness that saw her hospitalized for much of her life. Joyce struggled to understand his daughter's difficulties, and is supposed to have said to her analyst Carl Jung, "I don't understand what's going on with her, since I make some of the same leaps of language and thought that characterize her madness." Jung's reply is instructive, as he said, "You're diving, she's drowning." I don't want to rehearse a tired argument about genius and madness being kissing cousins. Rather, my point is that much of our attitude to an artwork comes down to intention: was the artists diving, finding pearls of beauty to bring back to us, or, was the artist flailing in deep waters and just happened to throw something shiny on land. Perhaps the only compelling thing I can say to recommend Francis Ford Coppola's Twixt is that it's a great movie to play "diving or drowning?" with.
Facts of the Case
Twixt is the story of Hal Baltimore (Val Kilmer, Tombstone), a second-rate writer of mysteries, who comes to a small town to hawk his wares. There, he uncovers what could be a murder plot that will provide him with the material to get him out of his current ghetto and back into the semi-mainstream. Meanwhile, his dreams are haunted by a young girl (Elle Fanning, Super 8), who may or may not be connected to the murders but who does introduce Hal to Edgar Allen Poe (Ben Chaplin, The New World).
By every common measure of the worth of a film, Twixt is a complete failure. The plot, such as it is, is a mixture of the overly trite and the surreally truncated. The idea of a mystery writer uncovering a real-life mystery sounds like a bad Scooby-Doo plot, and, as the world of Hal's dreams begins to bleed into the real world, things go from cliché to confusing. The acting, with the exception of the seemingly ever-dependable Elle Fanning, is hammy and ham-fisted. In several scenes, Val Kilmer has to act over a Skype connection, or we watch him from the perspective of the computer, seemingly talking to himself. It's weird and awkward (and I'm not at all sure that any other actor could have done better with the material). The rest of the cast follows Kilmer's lead, offering sleepy, slightly strange takes on stock characters. Even the look of the film is nonstandard. Shot on mid-level digital cameras on a small budget (and possibly intended for 3D at one point), the look of the film wants to suggest dreamy but often comes off as amateurish.
And yet, for all of that, I was mesmerized by Twixt, even as I recognized that so much of it was terrible. Reportedly, the idea for the film came to Coppola in a dream, and few films have captured the sense of dreaming, or another world, quite as well as Twixt. Though I'm not sure the sum is all that great, some of the parts are worth experience. Dan Deacon's score is rather excellent, perhaps the most accomplished aspect of the film. The scene where Kilmer as Hal tries to find the "voice" of his novel (and includes Kilmer's Brando impression) is simply stunning. Even the set design and cinematography occasionally rise to the challenge of being gothic and creepy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The great tragedy of Twixt, however, is that it never got to live up to its potential. Instead we're left with a decent, though unremarkable Twixt (Blu-ray). Initially, Coppola planned to tour with the film, but instead of showing this version he would digitally manipulate the film, re-sequencing the scenes alongside live accompaniment. This kind of theatrical air, coupled with the prospect of Q&As with the director would make Twixt a much more compelling viewing experience. The theatricality of the film would be reinforced and some of the lapses in plot might be excused by the live mixing.
Instead, we get one version of the film on the Twixt (Blu-ray) release. The 2.00:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is pretty good. Its major problem is its variability. Some shots are tack-sharp with perfect blacks and well-saturated colors. Other shots are a little soft, with noisy blacks and very little color. Some of that is intentional choices in the cinematography, some of it is no doubt necessitated by budget, while some of it is a dodgy transfer. So score one for looking like the director intended, but minus one for still not looking particularly good. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is a bit better. Dan Deacon's electronic score is given top billing, with plenty of clarity and dynamic range. Dialogue is always clean and clear, and the surrounds are used effectively for ambient effects.
Extras start with a documentary made by Gia Coppola. Apparently Gia had just graduated with a degree in photography so her grandfather invited her to make a documentary about the film he was making. The result is 38 minutes of on-set footage that gives a pretty good idea of what the set was like. It will no doubt be of interest to fans of the film, but it won't win Twixt any new fans. We also get a more traditional EPK-style featurette ("HD Sneak Peek") that offers the usual interviews-plus-footage combo. The set also includes an Ultraviolet Digital Copy.
Twixt will attract (and largely please) a surprising diversity of viewers. Those looking to rubberneck a famous director's late-career attempts at relevance will enjoy just how awful so much of the film is. Fans of the actors will appreciate seeing their heroes debasing themselves comically in a weird project. Finally, fans of the weird will appreciate just how strange Twixt really is, from Val Kilmer's messed-up monologues to the specter of Edgar Allen Poe and the weird Twin Peaks-esque biker-squad just outside of town. Though it's far from a total success, it's a bit of a tragedy that Twixt (Blu-ray) hasn't been given a more thorough treatment. The curious are encouraged to give this one a rental.
Luckily, this nightmare ends: not guilty.
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