Writer-director Bernard Rose's tense and pensive, Tolstoy-inspired, digital-noir dark showbiz farce "ivans xtc." is a potent, surprising piece of seat-of-the-pants cinema -- and not just because it actually makes you feel sympathy for a slimy Hollywood agent.
Set in the most furtive, cutthroat corners of the film industry, the movie opens by creating an atmosphere of contagious kinetic, vitalizing anxiety with a nerve-pinching score and metaphorical, dream-like images of a smoggy, hazy Los Angeles sunrise that has an ironic, asphyxiating urban beauty. The odd serenity of these sights is further offset by muffled sounds of hard breathing and the distant voices of emergency room doctors.
After this title sequence establishes the film's disquieting mood, the story begins with a bombshell that leaves its industry-archetype characters stunned -- but not so stunned that they won't immediately begin jockeying to take advantage. Powerful young talent agent Ivan Beckman (Danny Huston) died last night, quite suddenly of cancer -- or so the story goes. Within 60 seconds of getting the news, the other talent wranglers in his firm are gossiping about drugs. "What did he do," ask one rival who is repressing a savage, smug smile. "Freebase his face off?"
In a frenzy to present a business-as-usual facade, agents are sent out to appease Ivan's biggest, brand new client -- the licentious, egomaniacal matinee idol Don West (Peter Weller) -- and put out fires with some angry small fish, like a screenwriter who makes a scene at Ivan's funeral after being screwed over on a directing deal.
Then writer-director Rose ("Immortal Beloved," "Candyman") rewinds to one week prior to set the stage for what we've seen and introduce us to Ivan himself, played by Danny Huston (son of director John Huston) in an astounding performance that deftly, gradually reveals a real human soul buried beneath a spellbinding serpent's smirk.
Based on Leo Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" -- a tragedy of death-bed spirituality following an empty, shallow, material life -- the film's flashback second act finds Ivan at the top of his game. He's making deals, reading scripts and schmoozing celebrities who are pursuing his representation just as he's becoming the industry's fastest rising and fast-living talent broker.
But when a nurse calls the day after a company physical and ask Ivan to come in immediately ("The doctor will stay late," she says. "Can you bring a friend with you?") it marks the beginning of his whole world unraveling so fast it literally makes his head spin.
Soon coughing up blood and realizing he may not live more than another few days, Ivan goes on a jarring binge of drugs, drink and sex that Rose captures viscerally through creative, agitated cinematography and a score you can feel crawl over your skin as it blends modern club sounds with the overwhelming power of Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" and other stirring classical works by Chopin, Bach and Schubert.
Making this film deliberately on the cheap after a bad studio experience with "Anna Karenina" (another Tolstoy story he refused to dumb down, so Warner Bros. took it away and re-cut it), Rose is a little too enamoured of the flexibility and freedom he's discovered in digital video. Sometimes the format works to the movie's advantage, taking us inside Ivan's drug-addled nightmare with visually jagged, untethered camera work. But other times the director will, for example, shoot a scene in candlelight just because he can, leaving the viewer squinting to make out important emotions on actor's darkened faces.
But such ostentatiously low-budget, overly artsy shortcomings are balanced out by Rose's ability to create a viscous atmosphere of dread and sadness, and by Huston's incredible acting that embodies Ivan's fear and fatigue without letting go his bombastic psyche and smarmy, treacherous charm.
A momentous, stirring cinematic experience that leaves you somewhat stunned and pondering mortality, "ivans xtc." retains every ounce of tragic tinge from Tolstoy's weighty Russian melodrama while so smoothly incorporating the underhanded corrosiveness of real-life back-room Hollywood that even as a outsider looking in, it's more than a little unsettling.