Review: George Sluizer's Unfinished River Phoenix Film, DARK BLOOD


Last night, Twitch was present at the first public screening of Dutch director George Sluizer's unfinished film starring River Phoenix, Dark Blood. Previously, on Thursday, there was a screening for the crew and press, which was followed by a long standing ovation. And indeed, after this screening the same thing happened. It happened again when George Sluizer, who was present throughout both screenings, finished the Q&A afterward.

So is Dark Blood a masterpiece that merits such a strong response? Well... not exactly. Most of it looks beautiful, and parts of it are very good, but it is very apparent that the film is unfinished, a work that was in progress. The applause is likely more a testament to the film's incredible history. I will elaborate.


The Story:

Long-married couple Buffy and Harry (Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce) travel through the desert in their Bentley, hoping to rekindle their relationship with a romantic weekend. When the car breaks down in the middle of nowhere they seem doomed. But then they get help from a young hermit called Boy (River Phoenix) who happens to live there.

Their savior can easily drive them back to civilization but constantly delays doing so, to Harry's increasing chagrin. Instead, the couple get lecture after lecture on how rich white people have trampled the Earth and the local Native Americans. Worse, Boy has built a big shelter to await "the end of the world" and sees a future there for himself together with Buffy...


The Film:

To say that Dark Blood has had a weird history is an understatement. With more than 80% of the film finished and only some interior shots left to be done, the movie's star River Phoenix famously died of a drug overdose. The production immediately stopped, never to be restarted.

The unedited footage disappeared in the vaults of an insurance company, which, in 1999, decided to burn it all to save on storage costs. Director George Sluizer heard about this two days before the incineration was set to take place. He managed to organize a heist in the middle of the night, and got all 700 kilos of film stock smuggled to The Netherlands. In his own words: "From my viewpoint I saved the film, but from everyone else's viewpoint I have ehm... stolen it."

Earlier this year the 80-years-old Sluizer heard that his health was deteriorating and he probably wouldn't live to see 2013. He decided to finish editing the film into a watchable whole before his death. Dark Blood now starts with a short spoken introduction by the director, where he states that the unfinished footage was like a chair with two legs. "I've now added a third leg; we will never see the fourth, but at least the chair can stand now."

And stand it does, albeit in a way that's at times a bit rickety. At certain points the film temporarily freezes, and the director's voice chimes in to explain what's missing over some stills. It works, barely, but Sluizer is not the best narrator, and his accented and labored voice pulls you out of the story every time. It doesn't help that at one point Buffy reads aloud from a bad script for which her husband is supposed to be auditioning, and then one hour later Sluizer reads an equally corny part from his own script. Several of these interruptions could have been excised entirely, or easily delivered with more brevity. For example, in a desert full of sharp rocks, do we really need an elaborate explanation as to why Buffy hurt her foot?

But the footage itself is often mesmerizing. Using the Utah location to the fullest, Dark Blood contains a large number of beautiful landscape shots. Normally in an unfinished production it's the money shots which are missing, but in this case the opposite is true. All of the outside scenes had been finished, meaning everything involving cars, outdoor fights, fire and locations is included in the film. Only some indoor shots are missing.

A bigger problem than missing footage is that the film itself doesn't fully engage the audience. There is really no easy character to root for. I am all for some gray in a film but the couple as depicted here is almost entirely loathsome, and terminally stupid to boot. I'm not going to spoil exactly how stupid, but these characters are annoyingly high on the scale, getting lost time and time again even though there are, you know, roads.

Despite that, each of the actors have their high points. I've always been a big fan of River Phoenix ever since Stand By Me, Mosquito Coast and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Here again he proves just how charismatic and engaging he could be on screen and what a damn waste his early death was. Jonathan Pryce looks like the role of Harry was written specifically for him, a stuffy and pompous British actor with seething rage hidden deep within. Judy Davis has a few clunkers, but she delivers when the script demands something extra or more difficult, and her character becomes more believable as the movie proceeds.

In the end, we'll never know how close this version of Dark Blood is to what was originally intended, or how good that movie might have been. In Sluizer's current version, working with what he had, he still couldn't cut every corner the way he wanted to. The structure creaks, and the message is now delivered in a rather ham-fisted way. There are also some continuity errors present (watch Boy's hair change color). Nonetheless, Dark Blood is certainly an interesting film, and definitely worth checking out if you're a fan of any of the creators and actors involved.

The standing applause at the past two screenings certainly were in part for the film, and the effort and adventure put into getting this version onto a screen. But it was mostly a reward for the tenacity of its dying director, and a last chance to thank him for everything he has made for us during his fifty years in the movie business.


Conclusion:

This version of Dark Blood is an odd beast. It is almost polished enough to be regarded as a finished film. Almost.

The images, music and actors definitely make watching it a worthwhile exercise. But in its current form it is not a masterpiece, and maybe it never would have been, even had River lived to the end of the production.
Still, this film is recommended, especially if you are curious about the filmmaking process and do not mind spotting the occasional seam.


Dark Blood cannot yet be commercially distributed due to legal wrangling over the rights to the original negative, but it was shown three times at the Dutch Film Festival in Utrecht. Keep your eyes peeled because it may visit a festival near you, and in all likelihood that will be the only chance you'll ever get to see it with an audience.

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