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River Phoenix's 'Dark Blood': Berlin Review

Dark Blood Still River Pheonix - H 2013

The Bottom Line

River Phoenix is resurrected, and it’s neither too little nor too late.

Venue

Berlin International Film Festival (Out of Competition)

Director

George Sluizer

Cast

River Phoenix, Judy Davis, Jonathan Pryce, Karen Black

River Phoenix's final role is brought to light in this never-before-released 1993 effort from George Sluizer, which co-stars Judy Davis, Jonathan Pryce and Karen Black.

BERLIN -- An actor who was larger than life is given the chance to breathe again, if only in fragments, in director George Sluizer’s salvaged 1993 desert drama Dark Blood. Left unfinished when River Phoenix died of drug-related causes in the middle of shooting, this terrifically played and superbly photographed three-hander reveals to what extent the 23-year-old star was an intense and unpredictable talent -- one whose short but impressive career clearly was cut off at its prime. It’s also an engagingly modest low-key thriller, a curio item that’s half art house, half genre-jumper and entirely watchable despite the absence of several key scenes.

These sequences, most of them involving the escalating lust between Phoenix’s character and that played by Judy Davis, were meant to be shot toward the end of production, along with other interior scenes, including some with Karen Black (who’s only in the movie for a few beats). After the actor’s death, the insurance company laid claims to the film’s negative, and following many years of legal complications, Sluizer was able to secure Dutch financing and “complete” the movie, using original stills and his own, matter-of-fact voice-over to connect the plot points.

Although the end result can be seen as both an homage to Phoenix’s talent and a love letter to a movie that never was, it also can feel like a puzzle whose missing pieces have been sketched in with a pencil, and as such, it lacks commercial viability, at least on a large scale. After an international premiere out of Competition in Berlin, it  most likely will continue its festival tour, and then -- rights issues permitting -- go on to niche theatrical runs, cable, VOD and a DVD release whose bonuses are certainly worth waiting for.

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Adapted by Sluizer from a screenplay written by Jim Barton (who later co-founded TiVo), the film offers up an offbeat twist on a well-tread story -- something akin to Knife in the Water meets The Hills Have Eyes, with the latter’s flesh-eating mutants replaced by a mournful loner who’s part-Native American (the “dark blood” of the title) and altogether horny and weird.

But the “Boy” (Phoenix), as he’s known as, only comes into the picture once married movie stars Harry (Jonathan Pryce) and Buffy (Davis) make their way as sightseers across the Arizona desert in their incongruously large Bentley, only to have it break down in the middle of a deserted nuclear testing ground. When Buffy sees a light in the distance, she treks over to an isolated cabin and, after much huffing and puffing, arrives on Boy's doorstep and collapses into his open arms.

Such a moment normally would have been followed by what Sluizer describes as a “flesh opening scene” played up for its eroticism, in which Boy would have removed glass splinters from Buffy’s foot. Alas, this and other sequences -- essential to such a sexually infused drama -- are left to the viewer’s imagination, though the heat between the two characters is palpable from the get-go and only deepens when Harry comes back into the picture and quickly catches wind of their carnal tension.

Even though Boy sends the Bentley off to a local mechanic, he seems to be doing everything to keep the couple stranded in his desert hideout, and he offers plenty of early hints that he might be slightly, if definitely, crazed. We eventually learn that his wife died of cancer and his Hopi grandfather of melancholia, which helps to explain his offbeat gloominess, not to mention an underground atomic bunker he’s decorated with hundreds of Native idols, dusty psychology books and candlelit altars.

But it’s Phoenix’s performance that makes Boy such an intriguingly elusive character, and, not unlike his brother Joaquin’s recent turn in The Master, you never really know what he’s going to do next. This is most evident when Boy takes Harry on a hike in the surrounding cliffs, in a lengthy sequence Phoenix infuses with a mix of strange charm and gun-swinging menace, eventually ditching Harry -- only to pick him up later, as he does again later on.

The sequence also is highlighted by stunning exterior cinematography from Ed Lachman (The Virgin Suicides, I’m Not There), which doesn’t feel a day old despite the two decades that have passed since the film was shot. Coupled with that are the convincingly creepy decors, especially Boy’s remote cottage – a hodgepodge of broken wood and atomic spare parts designed by the team of Jan Roefls and the late Ben van Os, both of whom worked extensively with Peter Greenaway, among other auteurs.

Indeed, Dark Blood is one of those slightly loopy and rare items that lies somewhere between Hollywood and the art house, combining the former’s genre know-how and talent (Pryce and Davis also are on point here) with the latter’s eccentricities and penchant for unhappy endings. This is no real surprise coming from Sluizer, whose 1988 Franco-Dutch existential thriller The Vanishing (which he remade, in a lesser studio version, in 1993), tackled similar themes, especially a man’s desire to possess a woman at all costs and the madness that results.

But there’s also something innately tender about what lurks beneath Boy’s lust for Buffy -- a tenderness no doubt brought out by Phoenix’s innocent gaze and the foreknowledge that this would be his last role. “I guess you learn that the deepest wounds are self-inflicted,” Harry tells Boy early on, and as this three-way thriller comes to its sad, violent and rather surprising conclusion, his words unfortunately ring true on all levels.

Production companies: Sluizer Films
Cast: River Phoenix, Judy Davis, Jonathan Pryce, Karen Black
Director: George Sluizer
Screenwriters: Jim Barton, George Sluizer
Producers: George Sluizer, JoAnne Sellar
Director of photography: Ed Lachman
Production designers: Jan Roefls, Ben van Os
Music: Florencia di Concilio, James Michael Taylor
Costume designer: Jane Robinson
Editor: Michiel Reichwein
Sales Agent: Eye International
No rating, 86 minutes