No director jail boasts walls strong enough to hold Vadim Perelman. Nothing less than a specialized Bastille will serve for a filmmaker with his…rarified approach. Twice now the man has bludgeoned a promising story within an inch of its life. In both House of Sand and Fog and The Life Before Her Eyes, Perelman assembles a fine cast, allows them a few scenes to work without impediment, then drops his style on the production like an anvil. I’m struggling to remain objective, but it’s been a while since I hated a movie as vehemently as I do this one.
The Life Before Her Eyes is slightly less, or perhaps just differently, contrived than House of Sand and Fog. (Both are sourced from novels, but without having read either one, I’m commenting only on the films.)
Diana (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maureen (Eva Amurri) are unlikely high school friends. Diana is wild and a bit slutty, Maureen devout and generous. Their relationship achieves more than a superficial and time-killing symbiosis; we see each exerting a real influence on the other.
We also see Diana’s adult life, which is heavily influenced by her high school choices. Uma Thurman appears as the adult Diana, ill at ease and unconsciously repeating mistakes made by her mother. Uma’s version of the character is only fifteen years older, but she’s made to look much more broken-down than your average 32-year old. The years have not been kind.
The elephant in the room is a devastating school shooting. It begins while Maureen and Diana are having a quick bathroom break but the shooter bursts in, leveling his rifle at the girls. One of the film’s better moments is here: “Hey,” says the boy uneasily to Diana. “Hey,” she cautiously replies. With a gun between them and a dying teacher in the hallway behind, the moment feels awful and right. Perelman is so pleased that he repeats the scene three times before the film’s climax reveals how it ends.
That we even need to wait for the ‘payoff’ in this shooting spree is ridiculous. We know that one girl dies, but Perelman goes for the Shyamalan trick, pulling a last-minute twist based on the misconception that turning the knife will make the rest of the film more meaningful. Not that it’s much of a twist. The film’s title tells all, and one prominently featured bit of jewelry suggests the ‘true’ ending.
What stings is that Amurri and Wood have a natural, appropriate chemistry. More than once as the girls talked about regular ol’ teen stuff I realized that I didn’t hate the scene nearly as much as the movie around it. Uma’s work isn’t as strong, but she’s also saddled with being the both anchor of the flick and a plot device. That’s a serious burden, and Thurman struggles with it.
Regardless, Perelman’s style overshadows everything. The camera looks at the high school from self-consciously ‘off’ angles, and most scenes are constructed to deeply emphasize the latent pathos, frequently through grandiose visions of superficial beauty. Lest anyone miss any point, plentiful flash cuts between the versions of Diana leave no story beat without extra punctuation.
James Horner’s score, or this edit of it, is impossible to ignore. Not in any positive way. The music warps and warbles over the action in a manner meant to suggest uncertainty, but the only things I questioned were Perelman’s taste and the projectionist’s competence. The latter issue was resolved when I heard clean, unwarped dialogue. Perelman remains heavily in doubt.
As is so often the case with terrible movies, there’s a fine set of core ideas here. Would you die for a friend? Would you ask a friend to die for you, and if so how would it alter your subsequent life? I’ve read comments suggesting that the source novel suffers from a set of handicaps similar to those in the film, but this could have been a good story. The characters are there, and the right ideas swirl around them. But so too does the cloying style of Vadim Perelman, choking the life out of everything it touches.