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Ain't It Cool Exclusive - A Reader Review Of River Phoenix's Final Film, DARK BLOOD!

Nordling here.

Last October, George Sluizer, the director of River Phoenix's last film, DARK BLOOD, said that he was going to go ahead and finish the movie.  It premiered at the Netherlands Film Festival to an exclusive invited audience, and one of the attendees sent us a review of what he saw.  I'm very cruious to see this myself, and GodsUncleBob, judging from his review, says that the film is a very mixed bag.  But I'll let him tell us all about it:

Tonight at The Netherlands Film Festival in Utrecht there was an exclusive screening of River Phoenix' last (and unfinished) film 'Dark Blood', originally shot in 1993. Phoenix sadly died with 11 days of shooting left and the studio decided to close down production.
During the opening shots director George Sluizer (of both the amazing original and crappy remake version of The Vanishing) explains in voiceover that a couple of years ago when he was seriously ill (the man is about eighty) he had a sudden urge to cut together the footage that was shot. His analogy is that of a chair: he wanted to turn a chair with two legs into a chair with three legs. It will never be a chair with four legs, but at least it can stand.
I think there's great truth to that statement. This 'finished unfinished film' is not to be viewed as a normal movie. Whole parts are missing (especially the interiors that were supposed to be shot on a soundstage) and Sluizer narrates the parts that are missing over freezeframes. It's not in any way a perfect way to watch a movie, but it is watchable. Sort of. 
But is it good? Well, for a movie that's only been cut together in the last couple of years, Dark Blood certainly looks amazing. Full, lush colours and tightly composed shots. (Director of photography Edward Lachmann was in attendance tonight) I was kind of amazed by how well it turned out visually actually. The story sadly never really took off for me. It deals with a long married couple, played by the always excellent Jonathan Pryce and Judy Davis, who are stranded in the Arizona desert and find shelter with a strange young widower played by Phoenix. Phoenix mainly spends his time mourning his wife and waiting for the apocalypse, because he lives in a nuclear testing site. Pryce and Davis have nowhere to go and are basically held prisoner in Phoenix' shack. He keeps promising to take them to nearby towns or to fix their car but when he starts to have feelings for David's character he doesn't want to see her leave. (On a side-note, this movie contains what has got to be one of the first uses of the line "Forget it. There's no reception in this area" with Pryce using a big ass carphone.) 
The movie starts off well enough with Pryce and Davis bitching back and forth and finally finding Phoenix. Sadly, very quickly after that's when it starts getting boring and, frankly, just weird. Phoenix mentions he's a 1/8th Hopi native American, and he has an enormous cave filled with seemingly ever-burning candles and statues he makes himself that he believes have magical powers. Phoenix plays his part very earnestly, bordering on overacting quite a bit, and I was never quite sure how serious I was supposed to take his character. Is this really who he is or is he playing a role for these tourists?
Anyway, Davis is described by Pryce's character as "one of those women who always wants to know how she's doing on the market", and being such a woman she finds the attention from Phoenix flattering. At first that is, because when it becomes clear he's really not going to let them leave, things turn nasty. After a couple of violent outbursts from Phoenix she decides to give him what he wants and sleeps with him to convince him to let them leave. After that it really gets weird. Pryce (who saw it) then accidentally wounds Phoenix with an axe and is forced to kill his dog when it attacks him. In the background during these scenes, we can see that Pryce's fixed car is about to be delivered to him by some native Americans from the nearby town, but Pryce doesn't see it and doesn't believe Phoenix when he tells him. In the end Phoenix, fatally wounded, wants to touch Davis' tits before dying, has an orgasm and drops dead. After that the native American car people chuck Phoenix and his dead dog in his house, burn it down and tell Pryce and David to leave. Fade out, the end. I told you it got a bit weird.
I'm most certainly not doing this movie enough justice by describing the story like this, I know. But the big question we asked ourselves when we came out of this screening was: would we even be talking about this movie today if it was finished in 1993? I think the answer is no. It would be known as 'that strange River Phoenix movie when he's an indian or something'. I don't think it is a masterpiece or could ever have been one. As a document of it's time, it's most certainly very interesting to watch. The desert landscape in combination with River Phoenix wearing what can only be described as 'an Indiana Jones style hat', is enough to be able to see his character as some sort of young Indy from an alternate reality.
The big problem with watching this version of Dark Blood (though nobody's fault obviously): All of the big confrontation scenes are missing, simply because Sluizer never came around to filming them. Another question that kept popping up: Who's the main character? Is it Phoenix? Not really. Is it Pryce? Well.. Davis? Surely not. Or...? In the end we never really care that much about a single one of them. The killing of the dog got the biggest reaction in the theatre. Maybe some aspects of this version could be improved upon: the sound design is flat and uninspired. The music (seemingly random pieces of acoustic guitar in between dialogue scenes) doesn't really do much and certainly doesn't feel like it belongs in a movie from the '90's. But then again, I completely understand that even finishing this version of Dark Blood probably cost a lot more than it will ever make, so I'm not complaining. Well, I am, but you know what I mean.
After the screening, George Sluizer got a big standing ovation and talked a little bit about his experience 'finishing' Dark Blood 19 years after he shot it. Sadly, not one of the actors could make it. Pryce wanted to, but was doing Hamlet on stage. Davis never returned Sluizer's calls (he described her as a great actress, but a very cold person, so there's no love lost there). Karen Black who has a small part in the beginning of the movie is apparently battling cancer and couldn't interrupt her treatment. Only one of the native American bit players turned up. Which was fine, but also a bit weird. Still, it was a great and unique experience watching this movie tonight, and I hope more people can get this chance. 
If you use this, please call me GodsUncleBob.

Nordling, out.  Follow me on Twitter!

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