Like so many movie protagonists before him, the hero of Rhinoceros Eyes has a hard time distinguishing between fantasy and reality—no surprise since the film’s version of reality has been patched together from the time-warped, pixie-dusted universes of Tim Burton, Jeunet/Caro, and the Quay brothers. Daylight-averse Chep (Michael Pitt) makes nightly pilgrimages to a crumbling movie palace where a heavy-breathing colonial melodrama seems to be screening in a perpetual loop. On his way home, still munching popcorn, Chep gazes up at the lit apartment windows, mesmerized by the framed domestic tableaux. Compounding the stifling sense of movieness, this shy, barely verbal idiot savant lives and works in what is essentially a giant set—a cavernous prop house piled floor to ceiling with mountains of knickknacks.
Canadian writer-director Aaron Woodley’s dankly atmospheric debut is a passable mood piece, handsomely shot on hi-def video but a little too heavy on stilted weirdness and hand-me-down grotesquerie. Attenuated at feature-length, the slender, schematic plot kicks in when Chep meets Fran (Paige Turco), a workaholic production designer with unreasonably high standards of authenticity. She submits a challenging series of requests—the titular rhino orbs, a hand-carved prosthetic arm, a pickled index finger—and the smitten propmaster treats each task as a test of his devotion. Obsessed with fulfilling Fran’s wish list, Chep makes bold nocturnal forays wearing a latex mask of wrestler-actor Tor Johnson (and the Plan 9 From Outer Space star’s fixed expression of bewildered terror is, to be sure, a welcome relief from Pitt’s mannered poutiness). As Chep’s ardor intensifies, his fantasy life is invaded by taunting Svankmajer-ish stop-motion creatures that assemble themselves from chess figures, buttons, and junk-shop miscellany.
Despite Eraserhead echoes and Woodley’s pedigree—his mother is Denise Cronenberg, costume designer on many of his uncle David’s films—Rhinoceros Eyes never allows its darker undercurrents to take over. If anything, the film is often so benign it’s as if Gilbert Grape had wandered into The Purple Rose of Cairo. Almost every element in this movie evokes another movie, and the rampant referentiality increasingly suggests not fanboy passion but a paucity of narrative imagination. Live by the meta-movie rules, die by the meta-movie rules: Rhinoceros Eyes is a parable on cine-enchantment that itself fails to enchant.