East of Sunset (2005, Brian McNelis)
East of Sunset reminds me of my life in New Orleans. It’s all booze, drugs, and skinny pale people set to a Tom Waits soundtrack. Not to mention those artists, spooky kids, depression, pills, and bourbon. I both relate to it and hate it.
Mostly, it’s because I’m unsure if they’re trying to make any sort of statement. Is there really any point other than making a movie about pretty hip romantic junkies and pill-poppers over remade Waits tracks? They seem to want to say something about love and what happens when you’re scared of it, but then the end of it doesn’t do that–or does it? I like to think that there’s some sort of point made, that this life was kind of empty, but I am not completely sure. The kicker is that I don’t feel like the director knows either.
Carley (Emily Stiles) is a lanky, pretty pill-popper who hides her Xanax in a happy-face cookie jar and likes to take home lanky, pretty boys from Los Angeles bars that seem smoky (even though you have to smoke outside, at least 10 feet from the exit). Jim (Jimmy Wayne Farley) is an artist/bartender with a “recreational” heroin habit and a serious jones for Carley. He drinks bourbon, paints, lives in a huge loft, and always has unwashed hair and a bit of stubble. Nonetheless, he is endearing, even when saying lines such as: “I want you to ride me until your knees buckle.” Carley’s got commitment issues, and Jim has heroin issues. Three guesses as to what happens.
No, I’m not going to TELL you. You can watch it, listen to the new versions of Tom Waits classics (my favorite being Lydia Lunch’s “Heart Attack and Vine”) and you even get a soundtrack disc with it. You can enjoy pretty, skinny people having pretty, skinny, bruising sex, and watch a movie where for once the girl is the one running from falling in love, and the guy is patiently wearing her down. You can be annoyed by the moralizing, coming from a girl who pops pills and seems to subsist on cigarettes and booze; hell, you can be slightly annoyed, as I was, that the girl who wants to own her sexuality is revealed as usual to be kind of a mess, and secretly looking for love.
Probably 90% of the film is between Carley and Jim, with a few minor characters, mostly their respective best friends. Emily Stiles does a good job with a marginally sympathetic character–a girl who seems to do nothing with her life but take pills and push out everyone who cares about her. She does a great job of conveying the lies that Carley’s told so often she’s made herself believe them, and what she feels like when that facade starts to crack. As I mentioned above, Jimmy Wayne Farley manages to make a guy who could easily be sleazy into the guy you really want Carley to fall for, the guy that seems like he could be something real. The lank-haired bartender who paints at night and shoots up while schmoozing in New York galleries is a wee bit of a cliché, and it takes skill to make a real person out of a shell.
Some of the editing, particularly the first love scene and a solo bit in Jim’s apartment, is particularly well-done. The loving, caressing shots of these pretty, bony people set up and cement the connection between them, which could be hard in an 87-minute film.
And yet it’s somewhat unfulfilling–what really happened? Is it a film about love and how we jinx it by being afraid of it, intertwined with a morality tale about drugs that at times seems to be romanticizing the same drug abuse that it wants to confront? It’s a film that clearly will not appeal to mainstream audiences–it was written and made by and for artsy types who may not flirt with drugs to the extent that its characters do, but certainly are not completely shocked by them. The problem with that is that it’s easy to feel like there is no larger, universal theme to it because it’s outweighed with its hipness and of course, the drugs. It’s not like drug films haven’t made it to large audiences and resonated with people whose experiences haven’t led them down that road. I just don’t think this one will.