River Phoenix’s Dark Blood: Not the Epitaph He Deserves


When River Phoenix died in October, 1993, he was three weeks away from completing his performance in Dark Blood, an $8 million indie film that had already done five weeks of shooting on location in southern Utah. In this lurid modern film noir, Phoenix was cast as “Boy,” a mysterious, part-Hopi Indian widower living in the shadow of the Los Alamos nuclear site, where he comes to the aid of two distressed motorists, a Hollywood actor (Jonathan Pryce) and his wife (Judy Davis) en route to a lover’s weekend in the desert. Inviting the couple back to his ramshackle squat, Boy at first appears to be their savior; as he proceeds to delay fixing their broken-down Bentley or using his own truck to drive them to the nearest town, it becomes clear that he is in fact their captor.

Phoenix was hardly the first movie star to die in the middle of production. Just a few months prior, Brandon Lee had been killed in an accident on the set of The Crow; a few months later, comedian John Candy suffered a fatal heart attack while filming Wagons East. And throughout movie history, performers from Tyrone Power and Jean Harlow to James Dean and Heath Ledger have passed on before completing what would prove to be their last celluloid testaments. But where all of the above films were eventually finished using some combination of recasting, stand-ins, and more recently CGI, Dark Blood was shut down by the film’s insurance provider following Phoenix’s death, the existing footage locked away in a film lab. And there, for the past 20 years, it had seemed destined to remain, joining such other never-finished films as Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote and Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind.

In 1993, the official explanation for Dark Blood‘s scrapping was that there were too many Phoenix-centric scenes left to shoot for the film to be completed using a stand-in, while it would prove too expensive and time-consuming (given the cast’s other commitments) to start over from the beginning with another actor. Now that Dark Blood has finally seen the light of day, in a special out-of-competition screening at last week’s Berlin Film Festival, another possibility has come to light: that the insurance company saw the dailies and realized they had a lemon on their hands.

Dark Blood was written and directed by George Sluizer, a Dutchman who turned a lot of heads with his coolly disturbing 1988 thriller The Vanishing, in which a methodical psycho promises the boyfriend of a long-missing woman that he can find out what happened only be agreeing to experience exactly what she did. Unfortunately, nothing on Sluizer’s resume before or since was nearly as good, including the abhorrent Hollywood remake of The Vanishing Sluizer directed himself in 1993. Dark Blood was his next project, and now it is finally seeing the light of day, cobbled together by the 80-year-old, wheelchair-bound director from the extant footage, which he has admitted to stealing upon learning that it was about to be destroyed.

To bridge the various narrative gaps caused by the missing scenes, Sluizer has inserted still images accompanied by an audio track in which he himself reads the unfilmed script pages—a strategy that has the unintended effect of sending this already overripe howler into full-blown meta-hilarity. In one missing scene, which would have shown Phoenix’s character bandaging Davis’ wounded foot, Sluizer’s dry, Dutch-accented monotone announces: “It’s an intimate thing to open someone else’s flesh, a woman’s flesh.” And later, performing a bit of Phoenix’s dialogue: “I’ve been close enough to evil to kiss it on the lips.”

There have been other notable attempts over the decades to resurrect or reconstruct aborted film projects, usually in the form of documentaries made by film historians or archivists, like the 1993 It’s All True, which pieced together the existing footage from another stalled Welles project, a triptych of stories set in Mexico and South America. Then in 2009, the historian Serge Bromberg managed to convince the widow of French suspense maestro Henri-Georges Clouzot to give him access to the footage from Clouzot’s legendary unfinished final feature, L’Enfer, a wildly stylized tale of jealousy and murder that began shooting in 1964 and quickly fell apart. Bromberg supplemented Clouzot’s footage with new scenes filmed on a Paris soundstage, featuring the actors Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) and Jacques Gamblin in the roles originally played by Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani, creating an approximation of what the completed film might have looked like. In both of these cases, however, the existing material pointed to a film worthy of greater discussion and exploration, whereas Dark Blood quickly announces itself as pure folly—a movie that, had it made it to theaters two decades ago, would be long forgotten by now, save for the occasional late-night airing in the basic-cable badlands.

It’s important to note that, because all of the exterior shooting on Dark Blood was finished, and because most of the film takes place outdoors, long sections of the movie pass by without interruption from Sluizer’s audio commentary. And it’s more than enough to tell that the movie would never have been less than ridiculous, from the suggestion that Davis’ character is a former Playboy pinup, to the notion that Phoenix finds Davis so irresistible that it pushes him towards madness—the cast of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel generated more erotic tension. Which is to say nothing of Sluizer’s strained attempt to say something meaningful about the social and psychological fallout of the atomic age (Phoenix’s wife is said to have died of “the radiation cancer”). More to the point: The movie is a feast of good actors acting badly, including the gifted Phoenix, who’s been allowed to snarl and sneer his way through a rather tedious Jack Nicholson impersonation. Had the actor—who made Dark Blood on the heels of Peter Bogdanovich’s wan country music drama The Thing Called Love and Sam Shepard’s epochally pretentious western Silent Tongue—lived, he would have done well to seek out new representation.

Screening alongside Dark Blood in Berlin was another film whose extenuating circumstances tested the ability of many critics and reporters to be honest about the actual merits of what was on the screen. Entitled Closed Curtain, it is the latest feature by the embattled Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who continues to suffer a 20-year, government-imposed ban on both his filmmaking and his ability to leave the country. (In Berlin, Panahi was represented by a life-size cardboard cutout situated on the red carpet of the Berlinale Palast—which, somewhat disconcertingly, quickly became a photo op for no small number of media and other festival goers.)

Since the ban, Panahi has kept working clandestinely: in 2010, without ever leaving home, he made the essay film This Is Not a Film, an ingenious, slyly comic and poignant account of his perilous situation and his undulled creative spirit. Famously smuggled out of Iran on a portable hard drive concealed inside a cake, it was shown to great acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival and subsequently released in many countries (placing fifth in the Voice‘s 2012 film poll). Now, with Closed Curtain, Panahi has managed to lob another bottled message out into the world, but this time the bottle seems more noteworthy than the message itself.

Set entirely within a spacious beach house abutting the Caspian Sea, Closed Curtain begins with a long scene of a man arriving by taxi, then immediately proceeding to hang heavy black curtains on all the windows, take a shower, and shave his head completely bald. Clearly, the man (played by filmmaker Kambuziya Partovi, who also shares directing credit with Panahi) is hiding out from something, through it takes a while for us to learn exactly what. One clue arrives in the form of a TV news report about the banning in Iran of dog ownership, dogs being deemed “unclean” under Islamic law—a report gazed upon quizzically by the man’s own brown-haired, floppy-eared mutt. Then, just as man and dog seem acclimated to their new surroundings—and the man, who is revealed to be a screenwriter, begins to write—two intruders appear at the door. The woman (Maryam Mogadam) and her brother claim to be on the run from police after the raid of a nearby beach party, and the brother begs the writer to let his sister stay in the house until he can safely retrieve her—but be careful, he adds, she has a habit of trying to kill herself.

So for a while Closed Curtain makes a diverting guessing game out of the true nature of these characters and their motivations—one that at times recalls the vengeful dinner party from Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden. The women (who is known only as “the girl”) seems to be more than just a random visitor—she knows things about the writer and why he, too, is on the run. Then, just as quickly as she appeared, she vanishes, leaving us to ponder whether she was ever really there in the first place. About halfway into Panahi’s great 1997 film The Mirror, there is an unforgettable moment in which the film’s protagonist—a young girl whose mother has forgotten to pick her up from school—turns to the camera and says she doesn’t want to be in the film anymore, sending Panahi and his crew scurrying after her. At roughly the same moment in Closed Curtain, Panahi himself appears, pulling down the blackout curtains to reveal that this is in fact his beach house, and furthering the suggestion that everything we have seen up to this point has been a projection of Panahi’s depressive imagination.

It’s hard to fault Panahi for feeling depressed, of course—he’s had his livelihood forcibly stripped from him at what should be the peak of his career—and it’s easy to see how Closed Curtain might have been a provocative allegory not only for Panahi’s own experience, but for the many layers of censorship, oppression and persecution in contemporary Iranian society. These same concerns, of course, were central to This Is Not a Film and to other, earlier Panahi films like Offside, which depicted the efforts of a group of wily female soccer fans to gain entrance to a male-only World Cup qualifying match, and The Circle, about the intersecting fates of a group of female prison inmates. But where those films were all graced with a deceptively light touch and Panahi’s often dazzling gift for the elliptical narrative construction, Closed Curtain feels leaden with self-conscious metaphor, and even self-pity.

For most of the movie’s second half, Panahi sulks about the house, gazing up at the large framed posters for his films and making tea for the repairmen who come to mend a shattered glass door. (The film offers several possible explanations for how said door became broken, suggesting that this, too, is some kind of symbol.) Periodically, the screenwriter and the mysterious woman reappear, unseen by Panahi, to comment on the action, the woman hovering like an angel of death, proposing that Panahi simply end his woes by walking into the sea. Yet, without taking anything away from the seriousness of Panahi’s situation, it bears mentioning that he is not the first filmmaker to suffer the reprisals of an unfriendly regime. In his country alone, the directors Bahman Farmanara and Bahman Ghobadi have been banned at various times from making films, as were the Chinese directors Tian Zhuangzhuang in the 1990s and Lou Ye in the 2000s, and multiple Czech and Polish filmmakers during the years of the Eastern Bloc. Perhaps most analogous to Panahi’s case is that of the Turkish director Yılmaz Güney, who directed several films by proxy from the jail cell where he spent a decade on various charges including anarchist studies and murder, before escaping to France. Perhaps some of those directors also wanted to walk into the sea too, but the films they made, like This Is Not a Film, suggested otherwise, that no amount of tampering could extinguish their creative fire.

Moviemaking is never an easy business, even when nobody dies or gets arrested. But by the same token, tragedy shouldn’t serve as an excuse to grade on a curve. Closed Curtain isn’t a “bad” film per se, but it’s so much less than we expect from an artist of Panahi’s enormous capacity, its Best Screenplay award from the Berlin jury an acknowledgment of precisely the movie’s weakest component. Then, earlier this week, an intriguing coda to Closed Curtain arrived when Iran lodged a formal complaint against the Berlinale for screening Panahi’s film, urging the festival organizers to “correct their behavior.” Hmmm…a cardboard-cutout director creating an international incident with a film he wasn’t permitted to make in the first place: Perhaps life has just written the script for Panahi’s next film, and his first full-fledged farce.