Goran Dukić: Wristcutters: A Love Story, 2006
reviewed by Maxim Pozdorovkin © 2011
Goran Dukić’s Wristcutters: A Love Story begins with the suicide of lovelorn Zia (Patrick Fugit) and the revelation that those who commit suicide end up in an afterworld that is just like the world they were escaping but a little worse. In this desaturated land, nobody smiles, the appliances are finicky, and people make small talk about how they “offed themselves.” It goes without saying that this is a fantastic premise. Absurdist potential aside, the dramatic possibilities are endless. “Who could think of a better punishment, really?” Zia wonders soon after ending up there. Dukić has Fugit pause for a moment before giving us the real kicker, “I’ve thought about suicide again, but I haven’t tried it. I didn’t want to end up in a bigger shithole than this one.” The union of Fugit’s slacker nonchalance and the existential weight of the situation are a match made in heaven.
Much like Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day (1993), Wristcutters begins as a satire about the eternal return and ends up as a romantic comedy. Twenty minutes into the film, as feelings of existential dread start to overwhelm Zia (i.e. dive bars begin to seem like a drag), he discovers that his ex, Desiree (Leslie Bibb), had also “offed” herself, thus becoming—at least ontologically—available. Zia sets off on a road trip to find her.
Desiree—attractive in a shampoo-commercial sort of way—is glaring mismatch for the pale and disheveled Zia. The possibility of their ever being a couple seems remote, the likelihood of one party being driven to suicide—minuscule. In his quest to find Desiree and restore what was so clearly not meant to be, Zia is joined by Eugene (Shea Whigham), a Russian-American rocker, who plays the assertive yet clueless best friend. Soon after setting out in their junker, they pick up sexy and mischievous hitchhiker Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon). At this point the film goes into cruise control. Amorous indecision replaces philosophical anxiety and it is only a matter of an hour or so before Zia realizes that it is Mikal, and not Desiree, he wants.
Wristcutters, which premiered at Sundance and had a successful festival run,is a familiar romantic comedy/buddy road-trip hybrid. More interestingly, it is also a premise film, an extended what-if proposition, a forking-path reality that resembles our world in all but a few crucial ways. Unlike elaborate science-fiction fantasies that delight in the spectacle of unfamiliar worlds, what-if filmsare only slightly fantastic, limiting themselves to a single aberration and its spatter of consequences. Whereas grotesque environments are estranged and unreliable places that resist systematic analysis, what-if worlds are rigidly logical. Rather than make the audience sit back in wonder, what-if films invite us to work alongside the characters in deducing the consequences generated by the initial conceit. The result is a more engaged and analytical experience, one that occasionally places the work under greater scrutiny than it can withstand.
In the film’s first half, Dukić gets good mileage and continuous laughs out of the novelty of the afterworld. Dukić strikes a nice balance in Wristcutters; he uses the morbid premise for dark comedy but does not allow it to overwhelm the youthful exuberance that the actors bring to the film. With a beautiful cast and a hip soundtrack, Wristcutters is a film that strives for mass appeal. Consequently, letting Mikal and Zia live happily ever after in the world of the dead would amount to marketing suicide. While the romantic outcome is never in doubt—Desiree doesn’t stand a chance against Mikal—the film’s real conflict is between the laws of romantic comedy and the ground rules of the suicide afterworld. The threat of romantic comedy looms over Wristcutters but its onset is averted by the film’s quirkiness and ironic distance. The characters follow the roles and rules of romantic comedy but they do so with their tongues in their cheeks; the absurdity of setting a love story in a land of suicide victims is never lost on them. A romance about nihilistic hipsters with sliced veins may sound peculiar, but it is a premise that allows the director both to satirize romantic comedy and abide by its tenets.
Consider what Dukić does to the generally overwrought “you make me a better man” confession. Mikal and Zia go off to be alone and, unexpectedly, find a secluded moonlit beach. Romantic music comes on. As they get cozy, Zia reveals that with Mikal around he is not completely dead. The two fall asleep in each other’s arms. When they wake up the following morning, the camera pulls away to reveal a beach covered in syringes, condoms, and beer bottles. Kneller (Tom Waits), the wise old man of the film, finds the spooning couple and explains that the beach is where “the intravenous drug users and prostitutes congregate. It was too revolting for them.” This morning-after revelation that the beach is not the romantic haven it appeared is more than just a sight gag. The peculiarities of the afterworld allow Dukić to turn the romantic cliché on its head. The romance isn’t completely spoiled but it is made less saccharine and better for it. Too self-aware and playful to be an earnest genre exercise, Wristcutters peeks out from behind the conventions to smirk along with the audience.
Dukić’s playful approach to the trappings of romantic comedy reminds one of a musician who turns to acting. When rock stars attempt an unassuming role their persona—cultivated in the spotlight—tends to stick out from behind the character. The musician turned actor analogy isn’t mine, it is suggested by Dukić’s film. Not so much by Tom Waits’ role in the film but by the shadowy presence of Eugene Hutz, the lead singer of the popular New York “gypsy punk” band Gogol Bordello. Though Hutz himself does not appear in Wristcutters, he is felt throughout. Zia’s sidekick Eugene, with his moustache and affected Eastern European accent, is an undisguised imitation. Moreover, four Gogol Bordello tracks appear on the soundtrack with “Underground,” presented as being by Eugene’s former band, serving as an anthem for Wristcutters as a whole.
Along with contributing to the film’s aesthetic, Gogol Bordello’s prominence in the film sheds light on some of the decisions that an immigrant director, such as Dukić, faces in making his first feature for the US market. Generally speaking, the characters in the film can either naturalize the director or establish him as an alien. In the language of publicity this amounts to the difference between “the director Goran Dukić, originally from Croatia” and “the Croatian director Goran Dukić.” In Wristcutters, Dukić chooses the former and the choice of Gogol Bordello fits this decision well.
Though they embrace Slavic culture, Gogol Bordello are an American success story. In song after song, Hutz gives the word “immigrant” a scrubbing, ridding it of concrete national or socio-economic traits, transforming it into a term-of-honor for the globe-trotting flaneurs of the 21st century. In Wristcutters, Eugene’s character is, like his prototype Hutz, an Eastern European token that is fully assimilated into Dukić’s American afterworld. With an affected accent and a worrisome mother, the character of Eugene identifies Dukić as being from “that part of the world” but leaves out any of the complicated backstory.
The assimilationist tendency in presenting Eugene resonates with Dukić’s approach to making a quintessentially American genre film such as the road movie. Since its prototype in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1935), the road trip romance has long lured foreign directors. The most successful attempts have been unafraid to mess with the formula. Though not much of a romantic comedy, Paris, Texas (1984) succeeds because Wim Wenders imports to Texas a sense of timing developed in his own German road movies. Conversely, Wong Kar Wai’s recent My Blueberry Nights (2007)is a misstep because of the director’s willingness to color within the lines and settle for an occasional personal flourish.
Much like Gogol Bordello’s attempt to create a ‘Gypsy punk’ aesthetic, Dukić’s road movie tries to straddle the divide between imitation and reinvention. Though at times one feels that he capitulates too readily to conventions, the absurdist lining with which Dukić layers most scenes keeps things fresh. At first glance, Wristcutters is a familiar American road map; desert landscapes and power lines, payphones and diners, broken engines and crooked hillbilly cops. The dusty bygone America seems like a nostalgic collage until we realize that its lifelessness is intentional and befits the film’s subject matter and the predicament of its characters.
As Zia, Eugene, and Mikal continue their trip across the American West, their interactions are interspersed with exterior transition shots. Many of these begin by panning with the moving car before settling on a piece of broken furniture or some other piece of debris littering the landscape. These embarrassed landscapes, to borrow a term from Werner Herzog, remind us that their world is a little worse than ours. Yet as the friends journey onwards, the washed-out beauty of the landscape becomes strangely therapeutic and reminds us, as well as Zia and Mikal, that death is not the end.
Wristcutters: A Love Story,USA 2006
Director: Goran Dukić
Screenplay: Goran Dukić
Based on the short story Kneller’s Happy Campers by Etgar Keret
Cinematography: Vanja Cernjul
Original Music: Bobby Johnston
Cast: Patrick Fugit, Shannyn Sossamon, Shea Whigham, Tom Waits, Leslie Bibb
Producers: Tatiana Kelly, Chris Coen, Mikal P. Lazarev
Executive Producer: Jonathan Schwartz
Production: No Matter Pictures, Crispy Films, Adam Sherman, Halcyon Pictures
Goran Dukić: Wristcutters: A Love Story, 2006
reviewed by Maxim Pozdorovkin © 2011