BERLIN – I toyed with not giving one of our customary letter grades to “Dark Blood,” a new film from 80-year-old Dutch veteran George Sluizer that isn’t new at all. (It’s 19 years old, as it happens, which isn’t too far off the age River Phoenix, the incandescent young actor so abruptly taken from the living in 1993, was when he filmed it.) It’s only three-quarters of a movie, after all.
Phoenix, it seems unduly difficult to imagine, would be 42 were he with us today; the film, meanwhile, would be languishing on obscure DVD (or even VHS) shelves, a rarely discussed representative of a lurid strain of steamy, quasi-mystical genre cinema that had a Hollywood moment in the early-to-mid 1990s. Instead, it got its first major unveiling today at the Berlin Film Festival, nearly four months after its official, less grandiose, world premiere at the Netherlands Film Fest. Were he with us today, its star would likely took a little worse for her. The film, on the other hand, might look a little better — it’d be finished, at the very least.
For those of you unfamiliar with the development of “Dark Blood,” a surprisingly straightforward psychological thriller embellished with erotic overtones and over-exoticized Native American mythology, it represents one of the more remarkable rescue missions in the history of a defeat-prone industry. Intended to be an English-language debut for Sluizer, who had made an international splash five years before with the ingenious Dutch horror film “The Vanishing,” production was indefinitely halted, with around 80% of the script already shot, following Phoenix’s death.
The footage was very nearly laid to waste by its insurance company in 1999 as a rash answer to storage expenses. Having gained possession of the film itself — though not the negative, which still puts a cloud over the possibility of the film travelling beyond the festival circuit — Sluizer eventually decided he wasn’t willing to let it go, and that Phoenix’s final screen work deserved an audience. Despite a number of the narrative’s most crucial scenes left unfilmed, the director doggedly set about fashioning as coherent an edit as he could, bridging over the missing sequences with his own descriptive voiceover. In the film’s onscreen intro, Sluizer liken the result to a three-legged chair, given the bare minimum it needs to stand upright.
But three-legged chairs still have a tendency to wobble, and once my initial delight subsided that Sluizer’s gambit has worked — the shaping is clean and comprehensible, the performances have rhythm and even occasional crackle — the cruel question of how urgently the material needed to saved in the first place was left hanging in the somewhat sultry air. It seems to me almost unfair to put a grade on a work never given the option to be, quite literally, all it can be.
But I wonder if the accidental secondary narrative imposed by Sluizer’s warm-gravel narration, lending the sense of chasing a film through history, is more compelling and enigmatic than any onscreen goings-on in the Painted Desert — kinkily curious and beautifully shot, in humid gingerbread tones by the great Ed Lachman, as they are. (That this is one of two Lachman-lensed films in the Berlinale lineup — the second being Ulrich Seidl’s “Paradise: Hope” — is a unique career testament.)
The story, even accounting for the incomplete construction, is a spare one. Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce play sniping Hollywood couple Buffy and Harry — he a well-paid and well-regarded character actor, she a former Playboy model — driving through Arizona en route to a dirty weekend when their car, as movie cars are wont to do in such settings, breaks down, leaving them stranded amid the abandoned cuestas. An initial offer of assistance by a mute mechanic and his sponge-haired, doom-prophesying mother (a splendidly batty cameo for Karen Black) results only in a partial fix, but Buffy and Harry take their chances — only to strand themselves once more.
Enter Boy (Phoenix), a part-Hopi recluse who has effectively retired to desert in the wake of his wife’s death from poisoning. He takes the pair into his curious abode — part wattle-and-daub hut, part man-made thornbush, it’s a marvelous creation by production designers Jan Roelfs (“Gattaca”) and Ben van Os (“Girl With a Pearl Earring”), two Dutch giants who would later secure Oscar nominations — and sets about an alarmingly slow repair of their car. As his sexual interest in Buffy comes to the fore, it is made quite clear that refusing his hospitality is no longer an option.
Phoenix’s performance, of course, is the chief draw here, which is not to say the chief virtue. This was an interestingly opaque choice of role for the 23-year-old heartthrob in this stage in his career, and he appears to have been angling for a more aggressive screen persona here. We’re reminded of his fluidly expressive body language, but he’s just as often mannered in his madness; had things gone differently, we might well have some to look on this performance as an early experiment in the kind of hyper-technique that has since netted his younger brother Joaquin three Oscar nominations.
He’s also the chief victim of the film’s incompleteness, as many of his most volatile-sounding moments — including a cathartic sex scene — are stuck on the page, never having come to fruition. It’s Judy Davis and her standard slash of red-meat lipstick who seem to have the best grasp of tone in this moonshine marriage of straight-faced tension, mystic high camp and poetic nostalgia for a West no more or less lost in 1993 than it is now. (That she’s the standout seems less worthy of note considering the sheer range and number of projects she’s since brightened on similar strengths.)
Working from a script by Jim Barton, Sluizer was clearly taken with Sam Shepard’s evocation of America for the foreign eyes of Wim Wenders; imagine the Pulitzer Prize-winner latching onto the more recently vogueish middle-class-terrorization genre, and that conveys something of the mix of sincerity and exploitation at play here. For the director, even if I sense this wasn’t hurtling toward massive critical acclaim, this certainly would have been a more interesting and auspicious US arrival than his own catastrophic “Vanishing” remake. For River Phoenix, strikingly beautiful and magnetic even through his odd technical lapses, this turns out to be interesting, auspicious and involuntarily tardy farewell. Both men deserved more.
“Dark Blood” has its American premiere at the Miami International Film Festival on March 6.