“DARK BLOOD” (Movie Review)
“If you want something enough, you must will it. If you’re obsessed enough, you will get the object of your desire.”
So declares a tortured desert eccentric named Boy—portrayed by a fiery River Phoenix in his final screen role—to the pair of marooned Hollywood jetsetters he’s holding captive in a pivotal scene from DARK BLOOD, but the character might as well have been whispering through the celluloid ether to director George Sluizer, who recently (and with an effort that can only be described as herculean) plucked the film from the purgatory of fractional incompleteness in which it has lingered unseen for twenty years and made it a (qualified) whole.
Entering its final days of production in the fall of 1993 DARK BLOOD had plenty going for it: Sluizer had dipped a semi-successful toe into the North American market the previous year with THE VANISHING, a remake of his own 1988 Dutch feature SPOORLOOS starring Kiefer Sutherland, Jeff Bridges, and Sandra Bullock; the first two-thirds of the DARK BLOOD shoot in the Utah desert yielded exquisite footage capturing the foreboding-yet-beautiful landscape; and, despite reported clashes between Sluizer and the ever-luminous Judy Davis, the cast were collectively nailing fairly complicated, emotionally nuanced parts. The production departed for two weeks of soundstage shooting in Los Angeles with the wind at its back.
And then star River Phoenix collapsed and died on a sidewalk in front of the Viper Room on Halloween night—a tragedy that not only robbed cinema of an vital and potent talent quickly coming into his own, but also appeared to doom Boy and DARK BLOOD as well: The insurance company seized the negatives, which wound up in storage for several years as the insurers and Phoenix’s estate tussled in court over whether the young actor’s death constituted a “breach of contract.” Effectively sidelined by the litigation, Sluizer bided his time until he caught wind of the film’s imminent destruction in 1999 and, through somewhat murky means—press materials merely note Sluizer “got the unedited footage out of the storage and shipped it to the Netherlands”—the elemental blocks of DARK BLOOD were once again in the director’s hands. But how to assemble those disparate parts into something whole, if at all?
Sluizer mulled the question for several years until a near-fatal “acute aortic dissection” in 2008 prompted him to settle on a course of action: He would replace essential missing footage with representative stills and his own Herzogian narration—appropriate, perhaps, considering Sluizer’s tour of duty as a production manager on Herzog’s 1982 epic FITZCARRALDO.
Now, there are many pitfalls in evaluating a work borne of such an against-all-odds struggle. The necessarily nontraditional narrative structure is inextricable from the film itself, as Sluizer openly acknowledges in a short introduction to the film, and the shadow of Phoenix’s legend has proven surprisingly long.
Yet whatever one’s presentiment, it is difficult to imagine anyone—romantic, contrarian, or otherwise—walking away from DARK BLOOD believing it unworthy as an artistic enterprise. It is an odd, enchanting, seething thriller that grapples seriously with the self-destructive tendencies hardwired into human beings and the tragedies that can occur when those instincts are exposed to just the right (wrong?) synergetic spark. As for Sluizer’s narration, it jars a bit at first then quickly weaves itself into the tonal milieu, a sort of disembodied omniscience reinforcing the universal larger-than-civilization themes of this superbly paced, strangely affecting film.
Sluizer is greatly aided in his quest by a story as angular and surreal as its ultimate form: As DARK BLOOD opens we find Hollywood actors Harry (a magnificently huffy Jonathan Pryce) and Buffy (Davis) nearing the end of a road trip through the desert that has clearly taken a toll on both the Bentley and their marriage. At a small desert oasis—featuring Karen Black in a small yet typically crackling supporting role as a motel owner—a mechanic advises the couple to stick around long enough to get a repair done, but George insists they press on. Naturally, the car breaks down. After a miserable night stranded they are discovered by Boy, a disillusioned widower who has retreated to the isolation of the desert to mourn a wife felled by a leukemia brought on, we are led to believe, by irresponsible nuclear tests.
At first the free-spirited Buffy views Boy as a kind of “live simply” kindred spirit, not to mention a new weapon in her ongoing passive aggressive war with mordant highbrow Harry—i.e. a salt-of-the-earth local who politely disparages her husband’s pretentions. Boy, alas, does not realize Buffy is manifesting affectations of her own and mistakes her attention for a more fundamental connection. Soon he’s cancelling every promised ride back to civilization, menacing Harry and striving to convince Buffy to live and procreate with him in an ornate apocalypse bunker chock full of Native American Katchina dolls—think Doomsday Preppers crossed with a reservation gift shop.
By the time Buffy understands the brewing danger and gravitates back toward Harry, the die is cast—blood will be shed. A lot of seemingly trivial decisions and barbs converge into a profound trial from which it appears unlikely any of the characters will ever fully recover.
“A person can come to grief in the desert,” Boy lectures Harry and Buffy when he first discovers the couple. It is a line that foreshadows much of the tribulation to come—if not in quite the way Boy anticipates—and, again, is also sadly imbued with greater consequence outside the boundaries of the story.
By at long last revealing a performance that shows the range and intensity Phoenix was capable of, DARK BLOOD both somewhat ameliorates and magnifies the loss. An awfully premature exit, of course, though as swan songs go this is a helluva testament to one young artist’s talent and impact.