Review: Francis Ford Coppola firebombs Toronto with awful, witless ‘Twixt’

Francis Ford Coppola has produced some of the finest movies of all time, and when he is gone, there is no doubt in my mind that his work will live on.  As long as people are watching movies, they will be watching “The Conversation” and his “Godfather” films and “Apocalypse Now.”  No doubt about it.

Having said that, his latest film “Twixt” is so bad that it feels like a practical joke.  It’s so bad that I can’t believe anyone who has ever seen “The Conversation” made this film, much less the person who actually made it.

I am still having trouble processing what I sat through at the film’s first press screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.  I’ve seen plenty of bad films by good filmmakers, and even in those bad films, I can still see the identity of the filmmaker.  I can still see their fingerprints on the work.  With films I haven’t liked this week like “A Dangerous Method” or “Wuthering Heights,” I can still have a conversation about how the filmmaker’s craft is evident in what they do, and ultimately, my reactions boil down to how I feel about choices they made.  I may not like those choices, but I can see the reasoning behind them.

“Twixt,” though, is incomprehensible as the work of someone who has made other films, much less good films.  It is so terribly made, so inept on a basic storytelling level, that it is unclear what would have motivated any of the decisions behind it.  When I saw the presentation that he made at Comic-Con, he talked about his decision to use 3D in this film in a few key moments, and he talked about the presentation of Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” that he helped put together in the ’80s.  In that film, Gance only used the three-screen Polyvision process for certain sequences, with the majority of the film told using only the center screen.  In that spirit, there are two sequences in “Twixt” that use 3D, and in each case, there is an onscreen effect that looks like someone putting on glasses to signal that the sequence is beginning.  Intriguing as a notion, but in practice?  Absolutely useless.  The 3D sequences in this film add nothing thematically or in terms of dramatic impact.  This may be the ultimate example of cheap empty gimmick, and if this is what a former master like Coppola thinks of as the way forward, then let’s jump ship and never mention the process again.

Val Kilmer stars here, and like Coppola, he is a ghost of the talent we once knew.  There are little hints here and there of the razor-sharp wit and comic timing that once defined Kilmer, and somewhere in the bloat that enfolds him now, I can still see the preposterous beauty of his Jim Morrison days.  In some ways, that makes him ideal casting for Hall Baltimore, a sub-Stephen King horror writer who has had marginal success with a series of books about witches.  He doesn’t care about his craft at all at this point, though, and he’s on a depressing, soul-crushing book tour for his latest, using each stop as an excuse to get shitfaced and pass out in some anonymous hotel room.  He’s constantly battling with his wife (played by Joanne Whalley, Kilmer’s real-life ex) over Skype, and she’s threatening to sell off some of his prized possessions unless he can come up with more money to cover their mounting debt.

Then he stops in the small town of Swan Valley, where he meets Bobby LaGrange, a bizarre local sheriff who wants to be a horror author, played by Bruce Dern.  I will never forget that his name in the film is Bobby LaGrange because he tells us about 10,487,574,734 times in the movie.  The whole name.  Dern tells Baltimore that there is plenty to write about in Swan Valley, and they should collaborate on something.  He takes him to a morgue to see a body with a stake driven through its chest.  He tells him about the old clock tower with seven faces, none of which have the same time.  He tells him about the weird kids across the lake, led by the mysterious Flamingo, who are said to be evil.  It’s enough to intrigue Hall, but it’s not until he has a long florid nightmare involving a strange little girl named V (Elle Fanning) and Edgar Allen Poe (Ben Chaplin) that he decides to stay and sort out this story that seems to be brewing.

All of this sounds fairly coherent, and I’m sure there is a way this could have worked.  I don’t even mind that Coppola went experimental here.  I like that Coppola has always been adventurous.  He has never done things the easy way, and because of his spirit of innovation, he’s pushed the industry forward in many ways that people don’t even realize now, like non-linear editing and the use of video.  The problem here is that the narrative he’s telling is so garbled, so choked by style that doesn’t work, that it’s meaningless.  I don’t care at all because there is this oppressive level of artifice from the very first frame.  His use of black and white and color in certain scenes reminds me of “Rumble Fish,” and the nakedly video look of the film harkens back in some ways to “One From The Heart,” but both of those films accomplish their tricks much more completely.

And the story itself is so ridiculous, so riddled with silly cliche, that I can’t take it seriously as a nightmare or as a story.  I was always keenly aware that this was Val Kilmer and Bruce Dern, and it never feels like they’re playing characters.  It’s just phony, stilted and strange and intentionally oblique.  Elle Fanning can be very good in the right films.  I liked her work in “Somewhere,” and she might be the very best thing about “Super 8,” but this?  She’s stranded by the preposterous screenplay, and she’s not the sort of actor who can spin weak material into gold.  Coppola has started referring to himself as “the world’s oldest film student,” but if this was a student film that someone turned in to me as an instructor, I would fail them.  The use of Poe feels like empty pretension, layered in simply because Coppola likes Poe.  He doesn’t add anything to the film thematically, and he makes for a very silly and overly serious spirit guide to Kilmer, leading him through what starts as the story of Swan Valley but eventually becomes the story of Hall Baltimore’s own failure as a father and a husband.  Again… there’s a way that could work and maybe even be powerful, but by the time Kilmer is stranded on a dream cliff, weeping about the motorboat tragedy that changed his life, I just wanted out of the theater.  Kilmer’s grief is resolutely false, and it’s just uncomfortable watching him wallow.

At Comic-Con this summer, the “Twixt” panel may have been one of the strangest moments of the year.  Coppola talked about taking this film on tour and, working with composer Dan Deacon, who does the score for the movie, doing a live remix version of the film for audiences.  As he said this summer, “Cinema is young.  Barely 100 years old.  Cinema has many more surprises that you and your children will eventually see.  We’re still at the beginning of this expression of sound and image.  Music and theater are thousands of years old.  Cinema is a baby.  I was taken aback when I heard certain execs say they were going to make all their films in 3D, as if this was a magic fix.  Cinema has many surprises up its sleeve.”  I admire the thought, but by the time Coppola was showing us random clips in random order, filling them out with alternate takes and empty effects, and Dan Deacon had this electronic drone going while Coppola and Kilmer chanted “Nos-fer-AAAAAA-tu” into microphones, I was flat out laughing.  It was ridiculous and added nothing to the moments we were looking at.  Thankfully, what we saw was the “real” version of the film, the finished version that will eventually be released, and we weren’t subjected to two hours of watching my grandfather try to program the VCR.

I wish I liked this era of Coppola’s work.  I want to like “Youth Without Youth” and “Tetro” and “Twixt.”  I want to go on this big adventure with one of the most important film artists of my developmental years.  I want to see these experiments pay off in real artistic dividends.  But based on the evidence of “Twixt,” he’s on a downward trajectory, and a rapid one.  I’ve seen some awful films this year, movies that I would never voluntarily sit through again, movies like “Apollo 18” and “The Caller,” but those movies were made by people I had no expectations for, so the disappointment was momentary, then gone.  In this case, of course I had expectations.  And when one critic told me that the film isn’t a horror film, so it’s absolute failure to be scary in any way isn’t an issue, I have to return to what Coppola himself said this summer.  “I used to be a camp counsellor.  I would read to my nine boys, and I read the entire book of Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ to them.  I love that book, and I also love American horror authors and the great tradition of gothic romance.  Those of you who have read Poe know what I’m talking about.  There’s no question that all of those things are part of my work on ‘Twixt.'”  According to him, he was absolutely working in the tradition of gothic horror, and it’s a total whiff.  The only reason I’m not giving this a pure F is because he can still compose a shot, even if the photography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. has this ugly shot-on-video quality that I guess was an intentional choice.

As far as his use of 3D goes, it’s nothing.  It’s pointless.  It’s basically two short sequences, and if you’ve ever wanted to see a clock’s gears turn towards you a few times, then buckle up for the ride of your life.  Otherwise, I can’t imagine what effect he thinks he’s accomplishing here, or what thematic point his use of 3D might satisfy.  He might as well just have someone bouncing a paddle ball right at the audience for all the imagination on display in these scenes.  This is sub-“Gorilla At Large” stupid.  I wish Coppola nothing but success in the future.  I know I will always love his films from the past.  But right now?  Today?  There is nothing whatsoever I can recommend about this movie, either in the remixed live version or in this finished form.  By far, this is the biggest failure of 2011.

“Twixt” does not currently have American distribution.  I am not surprised.