Woody Allen has said, "Don't look upon death as an end but as a very effective way of cutting down on your expenses." But it doesn't quite work out that way in Goran Dukic's feature film debut as writer/director, Wristcutters: A Lover Story.
Wristcutters: A Love Story takes place in a barren landscape littered with the detritus of consumer culture, where the unsmiling populace eat grayish junk food, hang around dingy bars and dilapidated apartments, and listen to audio cassettes of Joy Division and Gram Parsons. Welcome to Purgatory, a drab and monotonous dead zone, appearing like a cross between the Mojave Desert and Trenton, New Jersey. This is the depository of all the unhappy folk who have offed themselves in life and are now in limbo, not quite dead but certainly no longer among the living. Dukic tells the tale in a literally deadpan style road movie, resembling a George Romeo version of The Wizard of Oz, filtered through a sardonic sensibility; a quieter, gentler version of the Dylan song "Ain't Talkin'" or Cormac McCarthy's The Road.
We take this journey with Zia (Patrick Fugit, jacking up his turn in Almost Famous a few years), who, despondent over a breakup with his girlfriend Desiree (Leslie Bibb), does what we all do when we find ourselves in a similar situation: He slits his wrists while playing the Tom Waits tune "Dead and Lovely" on his turntable.
Instead of meeting his maker, he materializes in the halfway stop to the netherworld, working at a pizza joint called Kamikaze Pizza and still pining for Desiree. As Zia remarks, "Everything's the same here. Just a little worse."
Zia hangs out with a two-bit Russian rocker, Eugene (Shea Whigham), who had electrocuted himself onstage to get the attention of a unresponsive club crowd, and just goes through the motions until he gets word that Desiree has also committed suicide and is now somewhere in the land of self destruction. Convincing Eugene to tag along with him, Zia takes to the road to seek out Desiree. En route, they pick up Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon), a beautiful hitchhiker who can't stand the afterlife ("Nobody smiles, it's hot as balls, and everybody's an asshole") and is determined to meet "the people in charge" and get them to send her back to the land of the living. As Zia moons over Desiree, Eugene desires a woman, and Mikal seeks a way home, the three drive aimlessly down the potholed highway, until they come across a mysterious, outré gent named Keller, who specializes in mini-miracles and holds sway over a group of disgruntled suicides and is played by Tom Waits (who else?). Waits and his skunk eye expression may hold the secret to it all.
Dukic has quirkiness to spare and he ladles it on liberally in Wristcutters. Even given the premise of the film, Dukic still manages surprising moments (Waits levitating awkwardly, the black hole at the bottom of a car, the hole in the back of the cop's head when the cop removes his hat, the suicide flashbacks of minor characters) and his atmosphere is appropriately Purgatorio -- spare and dank with desaturated colors like fading color film stock. The actors further sustain the tone with their poker-faced expressions and vacant line readings. (The inscrutability of the performances make Bill Murray look like Anthony Quinn.)
Atmosphere goes a long way in Wristcutters: A Love Story. But when you pare away the bizarre suicide premise, what is left is simply another boy-loses-girl/boy-gets-girl love story. In the process, the film offers the standard bromide of appreciating life not matter how bad it might seem because death is worse. Or as Mikal remarks, "Most people I knew before I got here were either half dead or completely dead already." So put away those straight razors and start living and loving, dammit!
Get up. Chop chop.