For an actor directing his first movie, Ethan Hawke has remarkable patience and an intrinsic knack for creating personal, intimate, candid, lingering moments between well-drawn characters in "Chelsea Walls."
This film is composed of handful of interwoven vignettes about denizens, new and old, of New York's Chelsea Hotel -- a legendary (and now somewhat unkempt) residential haunt of artists, poets and other Bohemians for more than a century. It is a film in which body language and unspoken human intercourse play a much more important role than dialogue, which often reveals its meaning only through the context of a scene.
Adapted by Nicole Burdette from her own off-Broadway play of the same name, "Chelsea Walls" opens with a pair of cops arriving at the hotel to investigate a suicide, then the camera wanders into another room to discover a pair of lovers whose passionate but ill-starred relationship has run its course. A leathery, hard-living writer (Kris Kristofferson) is trying to gently dismiss an uptown woman (Natasha Richardson) who wishes she had the will power to stop visiting, of her own accord, the musty Chelsea apartment he keeps darkened with forever drawn shades to better cope with his chronic hangovers.
Little of this exchange is verbal, however. Instead it is expressed through the glances, the touches, the tension and the tender-hearted, rough-handed way the gravely, burned out author stands his ground and says goodbye, while still angling for one more roll in the hay.
Kristofferson's story is revisited periodically, but the film eavesdrops on several other lives. Vincent D'Onofrio gives a subtle yet intense performance as a frustrated painter whose whitewashed room is half full of half-finished canvases. Uma Thurman (Hawke's wife) skirts the edges of neuroticism as a befuddled waitress whose life is in romantic limbo. Robert Sean Leonard and Steve Zahn play a pair of musician brothers fresh from Minnesota whose personality clashes and lack of a plan leave them without direction. And a young, mismatched and unstable couple -- a poetess and a troubled slacker -- is played by Rosario Dawson and Mark Webber, who seem to have run away from more well-to-do, suburban lives and are struggling to make it emotionally and financially.
Once you embrace the fact that the film has no plot to speak of, these concentrated character studies become engrossing on their own as they're illustrated through each artist's creative output. If you're tuned into "Chelsea Walls" you can feel the ghosts in the hotel coming to life narrating passages of Kristofferson's novels, the riffs of music from Leonard's soulful guitar (written by Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco), and the lines from Dawson's romantically urgent poetry. "I want to be a lost poem in a stranger's pocket," she writes on a pad on her hardwood floor while pacing ardently around the apartment that was clearly decorated before money became tight. "I want to contradict myself and have you know what I mean."
By giving his actors a lot of freedom to plumb their characters' psyches and by embracing the idiosyncrasies of his sometimes low-quality digital video imagery, Hawke creates a movie that is not about story, but atmosphere and mood.
Being a first-time director who is blindly enamored of his avant-garde project, he does make a few mistakes, the most prominent of which is that without a structured story arc it's never clear when an end might be in sight. As a result one could to tire of these characters eventually when "Chelsea Walls" begins to drag in its last act.
But Hawke never loses sight of the ethereal essence he set out to capture. I've never been to the Chelsea Hotel, so I don't know if the film's ambiance is accurate or even realistic. But at the end of "Chelsea Walls" I felt as if I understood that essence -- or at least I understood how Hawke feels about it.
Run time: 109 mins
In Theaters: Friday 21st September 2001
Distributed by: Lions Gate Films
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 26%
Fresh: 12 Rotten: 35
IMDB: 5.1 / 10
Director: Ethan Hawke