Having never had a near-death experience, I have no idea how true it is that your life flashes before your eyes before you die. But given my actress, um, proclivities, I wouldn’t be surprised if before I die, Uma Thurman’s life flashes before mine. She’s long been a divisive actress, but whatever her flaws, she’s easy on the eyes. If one were feeling generous, one could say roughly the same thing about her latest showcase, the drama The Life Before Her Eyes. It doesn’t want for surface beauty. But let’s set generosity aside, beauty being skin deep.
The Life Before Her Eyes is based, faithfully I hear, on the acclaimed novel by Laura Kasischke. It’s the story of two teenage girls whose lives are interrupted by a high school shooting. This might read like a spoiler, but it’s early in the picture: The girls are trapped at gunpoint by a murderous classmate and asked to decide who should live and who should die. It’s a Sophie’s Choice moment, but since it’s the kickoff point to the story, it lacks the potency of that wrenching reference point. The story splits itself in two, following one of the girls, Diana, as both an adolescent in the days before the shooting and as an adult still suffering survivor’s guilt and depression as the 15th anniversary of the shooting approaches. It’s the type of back and forth narrative conceit that one can imagine is easy to flip between in the headier realm of the novel but harder to pull off onscreen without affectation. The scenes have to play rather trickily as both flashforwards and flashbacks.
The movie begins with a credit sequence in which the soft and hazy still-lives of flowers bleed into one another, shifting from one image to the next. It’s beautiful, truly, but there’s something about it that immediately blares: Pretentious Artiness Ahoy! The man behind the curtain (director Vadim Perelman) is holding a megaphone. His debut feature, House of Sand and Fog (2003), was also based on an acclaimed novel and similarly bowed down with pretense and obvious visual conceits (hey, there’s sand… and fog!). The self-conscious artiness of this picture is evident in those opening frames and never lets up. We’re soon introduced to unlikely best friends on their way to class: wild child Diana (Evan Rachel Wood) and Jesus-loving Maureen (Eva Amurri, who you might remember from the Jesus-loving satire Saved!). Disregarding possible tardiness, they take a quick detour to the bathroom, as best friends do. Just as you’re beginning to enjoy their banter and their Angela Chase/Rayanne vibe (I couldn’t resist the “My So-Called Life” shout-out), they hear perplexing commotion and then what sounds like gunshots and screaming. An unimaginable nightmare is happening just outside the bathroom door.
The high school massacre is a terrifying and well-shot sequence, and the film returns to it again and again, grossly abusing the tragedy and pimping it for every bit of drama it might hold. There’s something increasingly distasteful about the frequent return trips. It’s as if the film is making itself into a memorial scrapbook of the event rather than mourning the loss. It’s easy to forget the other ideas being addressed in the film because they are legion and aren’t as coherently portrayed. When we’re not at the shooting, we’re in the fuzzy realm of ideas: girlhood dreaming, life choices, conscience, sexuality, friendships, and betrayal. None of these more internal elements are played subtly or skillfully enough to balance the distastefully fetish-like questions about the shooting that the structure of the film demands that you ask: Will both of the girls survive? Will neither? Will the girls try to save each other or themselves? How many bullets will he put in their bodies? Will we watch them die?
The film’s flashbacks to the blooming friendship before the shooting are easier to take. We’ve seen Wood play this role one too many times now, but if she’s losing the invention and revelation of her greatest performances (“Once & Again” and her movie breakthrough in thirteen), she’s still more of a skilled professional than performing seal. That said, she might want to look for an against-type role soon. Faring better is Amurri (Susan Sarandon’s daughter), who is a breath of fresh air. We’re less familiar with her as an actor, and there’s a pleasing naturalism to her performance. But most importantly the relationship between the two of them works.
Sadly, the inimitable beauty of Thurman as the adult Diana is wasted in the flashforwards, even as the actress herself is lit to mature perfection. The beauty is all there is. Her story line, which mirrors the young Diana’s projections about what her life might be like in the future, also mirrors her fears. That is to say, Diana is kind of dull and provincial. She put her wildness behind her but she settled down in the same town she grew up in (a common enough teenage fear) and she isn’t happy either, despite a comfortable marriage and a beautiful daughter. Part of the problem with this role is in the casting. Though I personally adore Thurman, internalization isn’t her great strength. And there’s nothing dramatic about the character of Diana that isn’t internal. The screenplay awkwardly gives her moments in which she talks to herself. This isn’t Thurman’s fault, but momentary banal soliloquies aren’t easy to handle if the rest of your performance is supposed to be unspoken.
Thurman’s best roles always capitalize on what some see as her downfall, but what is actually her true strength: a gift for large and theatrical stylization. June Miller was all theater, an actress using her outer beauty to burrow into the creative consciousness of the talent around her in Henry & June. Mia Wallace, her drug-addled gangster’s wife in Pulp Fiction, was also primarily outer affect — that Louise Brooks ‘do, those stylized line deliveries, the dance-loving physicality all hiding whoever Mia was from view and delivering in its place whoever you imagined/wanted Mia to be. Finally, there’s The Bride from Quentin Tarantino’s epic two-parter Kill Bill. Her face veritably quivered with rage, grief, and whatever else is fueling her fire. It wasn’t a naturalistic star turn, and it was all the better for it. It’s probably good that Thurman is stretching with The Life Before Her Eyes, but the role is a dud.
And so is the film. As the adult Diana begins to unravel, so goes the movie. The ending, certain to be a flashpoint of discussion, plays like the kind of trick or twist that would even give M. Night Shyamalan pause. It’s faithful to the novel, apparently, but that’s not always a good thing. Before it was over, I nearly hated The Life Before Her Eyes for its distasteful obsessions and its truly conservative worldview: Diana apparently needs to atone for her teenage mistakes, but religious and virginal Maureen can go to the grave in peace. Should my life flash before my eyes before my demise, I am certain that movie scenes will be included in the whirlwind edit. I only ask that this movie not be one I am asked to relive.
Nathaniel Rogers is a freelance writer in New York City. He is older than Penelope Cruz and younger than Nicole Kidman but ought never to be confused with Tom Cruise. He blogs daily at The Film Experience.
The Life Before Her Eyes / Nathaniel Rogers
Film | April 28, 2008 | Comments ()