For any number of films which are celebrated for being different, for offering some facet of innovation into increasingly familiar patterns of cinematic experience, there will always remain those films, like Scott Reynolds' Heaven, which slip through the cracks of cultural knowledge. With an infamous back history of being bought and released almost straight to DVD by the Weinstein Company to not confuse prospective viewers regarding their more 'accessible' release, director Tom Tykwer's Heaven starring Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi (which was subsequently released in 2002), Reynolds' Heaven quickly drifted into obscurity. Yet, upon viewing, this becomes all the more tragic, as Reynolds' film proves an ingenious hidden gem of a film which toys with and subverts viewer expectations as craftily as it constructs its own, viscerally unique experience.
While the storyline premise, out of context, could not sound more incongruous. The provided television summary reads: " A gambling addict contests custody of his son with his estranged wife, little knowing that she and his psychologist are having an affair " - which, while it is a subplot of the film, says nothing of the film's more profoundly bizarre and unique characteristics, such as its clairvoyant transvestite stripper protagonist, to mention only one. The inter-splicing of fantasy within a brutal neo-noir environment admittably requires suspension of disbelief, but Reynolds barely gives his viewers a chance to reflect on the 'unbelievable' plot device, whipping his film along at such a frenzied pace that the audience remains riveted simply in an effort to keep up. But Reynolds' cinematic manipulation hardly stops with the film's pace, as he equally toys with and subverts spatial- temporal relations, inter-cutting conversations held in identical locations over different times, leaving the viewer continually forced to question what is actually happening when, and who is saying what to who.
While such a unique cinematic trope could simply result in a chaotic mess (and is inevitable to distance many viewers) Reynolds masterfully keeps his film together, miraculously tying together any extraneous plot holes and drawing the viewer into a claustrophobic yet fascinating and enthralling convoluted narrative. Finally, when the film's unconventional tension rises to near insurmountable levels, Reynolds again pulls the proverbial rug out from under the viewer with an alternatively gruesome and triumphant ending which embraces the sort of Hollywood conventions the film had vehemently resisted up until that point. Yet instead of such an ending feeling like a creative cop-out, it instead feels cathartically necessary, finally giving the viewer a necessary emotional release, while simultaneously feeling subtly ironic throughout, as if chuckling at its own willful fulfilling of viewer expectations. A remarkable cinematic tour-de-force for director Reynolds, it is both frustrating and tragic that such a talented filmmaker remains so unappreciated by the industry.
Yet the film's strengths go beyond its bizarre premise and manipulation of time and narrative. The film's equally strange setting is equally likely to leave viewers scratching their heads, with a mix of American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and South African (among others) accents, currencies and otherwise cultural presences, begging the question as to whether the film is even meant to take place within a contemporary 'realistic' context, or some not too distant future where cultures intermingle and clairvoyant transvestite strippers somehow do not seem out of place. However, the film's innately strange setting perfectly compliments the grim absurdity of its neo-noir trappings, a gritty world of shadows and filth which manages to achieve being both aesthetically fantastic and frighteningly real simultaneously. Victoria Kelly's equally incongruous musical score fits right into the tone of strange, but only a shade away from normal, perfectly accentuating the escalating tension and mystery.
Reynolds' assembly of a cast of superbly talented character actors brings his collection of colourful characters to vivid, memorable life. Martin Donovan gives an unshowy and sturdy performance as the gambling addict architect protagonist, forced to resort to designing strip clubs to garner money to pay for legal bills to fight for custody of his son. Donovan carries the perfect mix of conventional and quirky, making him the ideal leading man for a film which exemplifies such a hybrid, and his grounded charisma binds the outlandish facets of the film together as a sturdy emotional center. Similarly, Danny Edwards is luminous as aforementioned clairvoyant transvestite stripper Heaven, managing to make an innately strange character both entirely credible and achingly sympathetic, giving an emotionally resonant, lingering and genuinely human performance. The tragically underrated Richard Schiff is phenomenal as a crooked strip club owner, coming across as perversely charming even at his most despicable, and Joanna Going delivers a measured, powerful performance as Donovan's flawed yet morally struggling ex-wife, thankfully refusing to turn her character into a villain. In contrast, Patrick Malahide has tremendous fun chewing the scenery and embracing gruesomely malicious psychiatrist Melrose - when Heaven scathingly declares Melrose to be the devil, it hardly feels an overstatement, so memorably yet fittingly grotesque is Malahide. Finally, Karl Urban delivers the sort of role which, had the film enjoyed popularity, would have made him a superstar overnight as the mysterious bouncer known only as "The Sweeper", with Urban making astoundingly powerful use of his tragically but necessarily few scenes.
To say more regarding the plot would ruin the wonderful guessing game of the film, but suffice to say that such a fundamentally unique and masterfully thrilling cinematic experience deserves to be seen by all willing to commit to its brutal violence and confounding manipulation of narrative. Despite being virtually culturally unknown and its incongruous premise, Heaven delivers near peerless thrills of the sort literally almost never seen in the mainstream, making it easily worth searching out. Those who come across it are unlikely to be disappointed.
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