SPECIAL REVIEW: Wristcutters: A Love Story
Produced by: Chris Coen, Tatiana Kelly, Mikal P. Lazarev, Adam Sherman
Screenplay by: Goran Dukić
Story by: Etgar Keret
Edited by: Jonathan Alberts
Cinematography by: Vanja Cernjul
Music by: Bobby Johnston, Gogol Bordello
Starring: Patrick Fugit, Shannyn Sossamon, Shea Whigham, Leslie Bibb, Mikal P. Lazarev, Mark Boone, Jr., Abraham Benrubi, Mary Pat Gleason, Anthony Azizi, Azura Skye, Nick Offerman, Sarah Roemer, John Hawkes, Tom Waits, Anatol Rezmeritza, Cameron Bowen, Jake Busey
Based on the short story Kneller’s Happy Campers by Etgar Keret
This review contains some mild spoilers.
Lying in bed, placing a needle on a record, and then, to the tune of Tom Waits’ “Dead and Lovely,” we watch Zia, the lead character, at various stages of tidying up his mess of an apartment. Zia picks up every bit of trash and misplaced piece of dirty clothing, then wipes down every surface and piece of furniture from the dust and filth that has built up. He waters his plants, as well, then looks around to ensure he’s finished. He then looks at himself, directly into the camera, fixes his hair, takes a peek outside his window, mindlessly, and then around his room once more to ensure that he’s done everything he possibly could. He then walks into the bathroom. This time, the camera doesn’t follow until several moments pass. Uneasily, it begins to creep in. Zia’s looking into a mirror, working at something just off screen. His expression barely changes as he collapses to the tile floor. There’s a pool of bloody water in the sink, a razor beside it. In his last few moments, he notices a single, large dust bunny in the corner of the room. It’s barely moved by his last few breaths…
The opening moments to Wristcutters: A Love Story really hit close to home for me. As frightening as that may sound, let me note that I’ve never actually attempted suicide nor even gone so far as to self-harm. But I’ve gone through innumerable periods in my life where that sort of thing has seemed like quite a viable option, starting as early as fourth grade and, to be honest, continuing into the present. My apartment, also, is currently a very similar mess, and when I have ever gotten to the point of actually contemplating suicide, one of the strangest, mundane thoughts that runs through my head was wondering what exactly someone would think upon seeing my apartment. “That figures,” I can imagine them saying, and this movie acknowledged that weird bit of anxiety.
Most of the time, it seems like cleaning my apartment is an impossible task – cooking, recently, too, as evidenced by my weight gain – and I’ve rarely been motivated to make things better for myself. I get really into the cleaning mood, though, when I plan to have people over, which is maybe a couple times a year… usually because I’m just too embarrassed at the fact that I find it so hard to be motivated to clean in the first place. And so I avoid inviting people, and I even sometimes avoid situations where I might be invited to others’ places, as well, since then I’ll be obligated to reciprocate. It’s pretty freaking exhausting, and I usually end up just trying to ignore my own dislike for it and clean up in the few spots I can.
I only discovered this movie because, a few weeks ago, I was in the midst of experiencing a very long period of being mired in a depressive episode – I’m talking weeks – and I needed some kind of affirmation of my experience from someone or something that did actually understand what I was going through, rather than just be an ear to speak my grievances into and, in my mind, have them feel sorry for me. Sometimes, even when the characters in a movie are and remain miserable, as pathetic as it may sound, it helps to commiserate, even with a work of fiction.
I feel guilty over my issues, though, and apart from the people I’m closest to (and, I guess with anyone who is now reading this), I don’t even normally call it “depression.” Instead, I tend to call it “feeling down” or maybe as far as “feeling depressive,” as I did just at the beginning of this paragraph, because somehow that seems less clinical or crazy and, most importantly, it makes it sound less permanent. There’s plenty of evidence for my condition, of course – I’ve been known to cry uncontrollably for random reasons, and I’m not particularly motivated about quite a lot in life – but I’ve never actually been diagnosed, either, mostly because I’ve never sought out help for it. Why? Because when I’m in the midst of “feeling down,” my thoughts tend to be“What’s the point? It’ll just suck up my money and time, and I don’t know if I’ll even get better. And if I get medication, who knows what it will do to me or if it will even work, and there goes even more of my money and time!” And when I’m not “feeling down,” I avoid thinking about being down, because then that may make me “feel down” again, and why would I want to do that if I’m currently in a good mood?
Of course, part of me knows that some may see my claim as bogus. Whether it’s because they don’t think the condition really exists (“You’re just sad, and you’ll get over it.”), they think that I just want attention, or they think that I’m just lapsing in my faith as a Christian and need more Jesus, not medical help, the fear of any of those also fills me with anxiety and, honestly, anger. I am particularly more worried, though, about being compared to people who also like to flaunt self-diagnosed issues in order to excuse themselves for what are actually just personality flaws that they should actually work on but are instead insisting upon others to deal with. “What if I’m not actually depressed, and I’m just a lazy sad person?” I wonder. I don’t know what I would do if that were the case. Probably feel more pathetic.
I am even more so worried about what others might do if I did get confirmation and others found out that I am clinically depressed, though – like what would that mean for my job, even if I don’t think it’s adversely affecting my performance? And that may be the one area where I do excel, even in spite of my problems.
Yet, for some reason, I still thought this should be more of a personal article than waht’s in my typical reviews, as if this movie coming into my life was some sign that I should finally start talking about this issue more openly. I’ll still try to talk about the movie, but, given my reasons for putting it in my Netflix DVD queue, this will end up being more about my surrounding thoughts and, yes, my feelings while watching it. My appreciation for it was definitely more informed by that, I guess, rather than any sort of actual critique about the minutiae of the film’s composition – the cinematography, the plot development, and the performances – which, just to get it out of the way, are perfectly fine for the film and are sometimes even delightful… though I did find that the plot veered kind of awkwardly into the more supernatural stuff in the latter half compared to the mundane, appropriately meandering first half…
This movie began with the lead character killing himself, and yet he’s present throughout the rest of the movie. I probably should explain why that is, at the very least, so that you have some context. The main story actually takes place in the afterlife, in a world that is much like our normal, everyday life, except it’s “just a little worse,” Zia tells us, and everyone got to this afterlife by committing suicide. It’s common, for instance, for everyone to go to the bar and people watch, trying to guess how they offed themselves in their life. It’s a macabre activity, but when you’ve already died and survived to talk about it, I guess macabre is kind of just the new norm.
Zia doesn’t have much going on in the afterlife, either, working at a place amusingly named Kamikaze Pizza, but he hears from a friend who recently arrived that his ex-girlfriend from before also recently committed suicide and is now spending her time somewhere out in the desert. Believing that this is a sign that they should be together and a way to making the afterlife less… well, not exactly happier (people are incapable of smiling in this place, and are not particularly emotive in general), but at least incrementally better, he sets out with one of his new friends, Eugene, on a road trip to find her. Along the way, they also pick up a hitchhiker named Mikal, who believes she was sent to this place in error and is looking for “the people in charge” so they can make a correction. Naturally, the beautiful Mikal’s presence throws Zia for a loop, giving the title its romantic subtitle. Yep – this is a morbid, subdued romcom/road trip movie set in the mundane afterlife. It’s a novel premise, to be sure, and one that the film pulls off admirably.
While watching, I actually contemplated whether or not I was even going to review it at all, though. It felt a bit too personal, and I felt like I would have to explain myself to people for reviewing a movie with such an alarming title – more so than when I wrote my recent review of Fifty Shades of Grey, which is at least something to be embarrassed about seeking out. Coming to the conclusion that I should actually do this was itself inspiration for quite a bit of anxiety and caused me to delay the review for a while as I busied myself with things non-writing related, like finally continuing my progress in the Assassin’s Creed games. That I couldn’t review it without feeling like I had to talk about my own issues was incredibly stressful. I also, oddly, worried that I might insult fans of this cult film or even fans of the original short story upon which it’s based. Or, hell, even fans of the graphic novel because of the fact that I had never heard of this movie before a few weeks ago. I know very little about Tom Waits, too, who costars and provides the film with its opening song. At certain points, I even contemplated just giving up and shutting the site down because… well, that just seemed like a more fruitful solution to my problem at the time and was certainly more proactive than just letting it sit here in disuse.
The movie title alone was also something I worried about, as I knew that I would be sharing the review on my Facebook page amongst pictures of friends’ vacations and kids, alongside status updates with encouraging Bible verses from well-meaning people and expressions of excitement about something great that happened during the day. I tend to not share much beyond casual observations and thoughts on movies there, so I don’t even know if anyone knows what kind of issues I’m dealing with apart from the people I’ve talked to in person. The title of this movie is pretty damn alarming, though, so maybe someone would read it, I wondered. Or maybe they’ll just be put off – something that the marketing team certainly thought of and probably squirmed about, as there’s even a version of the poster that didn’t even include the film’s title and instead featured the more positive message, “Love Survives.” They even made that their website domain.
It’s probably for the better that they did think to include that message, though, and it’s not like the movie refutes it, either. Some have claimed that the film’s story was Hollywood-ized from the source material, and I know how much that can suck. It could have even been an irrepressibly despairing film and still have been an excellent movie with the proper execution. And yet, at least for the time that I needed it, the fact that it is ultimately a surprisingly positive and even entertaining movie with a lot of empathy for its characters, even if they’re not particularly expressing much emotion themselves, was strangely comforting. And it still acknowledged and respected the seriousness of their experiences, even in that disturbing opening scene. There’s some dark humor scattered about, which I know some people are sensitive to, but it’s honestly a valid response to those kinds of things. Personal example: The one time I actually called a suicide hotline, having remembered that such a thing existed thanks to commercials from when I was a kid, I wound up just listening to the hold music between canned messages of reassurance that someone cared and would answer soon. I actually got so frustrated, I essentially forgot that 40 minutes prior I couldn’t do anything but sob, and so I hung up, checked the clock, and decided it was getting late and just went to bed. In the morning, I actually cracked up at the absurdity of the situation and wondered if that was actually a technique they counted on for when they were understaffed. It’s such a humorous story to me, I felt the need to shoehorn that into this review. (Sorry. I know that was sloppy.)
I noted earlier that the film “appropriately meanders” in the first half, and by that I meant that the film perfectly captures the slothful, aimlessness of how I certainly feel sometimes, drifting through life and maybe fixating on only a few things in my personal life, holding onto my perception of reasonable sanity and contentment. The film acknowledges the tendency to fixate on things from one’s past – notably the regrets in hindsight – as well as the unrealistic expectations of what might fix an issue, but it also sheds light on the significance of mundane happiness that often goes ignored in the moment but can later become profound, which sets this film apart from your typical romantic comedies. Too often, small gestures of love and affection are treated in those kinds of films like gateways to grander expressions of love yet to come. This is rarely, if ever, a realistic expectation and often not even a genuine expression of love. This message is not specific towards those dealing with depression, of course, but at least for me, by the end, I was certainly grateful for the reminder.
As I said before, this wasn’t really going to be too focused on all the details of the movie itself, but rather my thoughts surrounding it. Yes, the characters are likable, the acting competent, and the premise compelling and novel, with only a few execution hiccups along the way. I maybe would’ve also liked a bit more world building, but that’s the sci-fi geek in me, and the film isn’t so much about the setting as the characters, anyway. (SPOILERS – I’m not even certain that all that came between was real, given the “Hollywood ending” some people apparently did not like, but that actually strengthens my idea that this is merely an abstract representation of the depression experience that led to Zia’s opening decision, rather than something that literally happened. – END SPOILERS)
I don’t normally react so strongly to films that are “about” experiential, little understood concepts like depression, usually because they are so artificial and maudlin, but something about Wristcutters just resonated with me in a way that few movies have. It reminded me of the first time I saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which continues to be one of those movies that immediately comes to mind when someone asks what my favorite movie is. (As if I could choose just one!) This isn’t as good as that film, but it is in the same vein and still quite good in its own right. It’s authentic and, despite being a romance story, did not romanticize depression or suicide. Nor did it condescend. Instead, it commiserates with those who go through the same issues its characters do, and when it offers up a positive message, it isn’t tacked on, either, because of its authenticity. It’s as if it’s coming from a place of experience. I guess I just truly appreciated that, most of all.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5