Rachel Breiwick heads back to the purgatory landscape of the magical realist dark comedy Wristcutters: A Love Story.
In 2007, I was an actual wristcutter. I learned about self-harm from a friend and MTV’s Real World, where a girl with dyed-silver hair carried around a knife and, during a talking head scene, explained that cutting diluted other pain. I was hooked, and was—let’s be honest—interested in the subject. So when I saw Wristcutters: A Love Story, I chose a film based solely on its title. I was really disappointed.
I don’t know what I expected, but I remember watching the opening scene where Patrick Fugit slashes his wrists and wakes up in a desert purgatory, and thinking, “What did I just Limewire?” I wanted something charming and quick-to-the-punch like Garden State, and instead I found myself not getting the humor (I was also an ignorant child, okay?) and wondering why I should care about people who were already dead.
I wasn’t prepared either for the borderline magical realism that the movie toys with, where lit matches float up into the sky and stay there, or where a literal blackhole exists underneath your passenger-side seat and steals your sunglasses and shit. (Why though?)
The hell that is reserved for suicides looks like something from outside of L.A., with short garage-style buildings, no green plants, and barbed fences—which seems about right.
I remember thinking that the protagonist, Zia, played by Patrick Fugit, was especially ordinary. I hated his hair, flipped out at the ends like some kind of Jim Halpert hackjob. As for Mikal, played by Shannyn Sossamon, I just wanted her to go back to being that flamboyant badass Jocelyn from A Knight’s Tale. In this movie, she wears basically discarded children’s clothing, and—I’m going to sound like our president here—never smiles.
Wristcutters looks like a cross between Little Miss Sunshine and Everything is Illuminated, with bright colors that look faded from the sun, and lots of music from Gogol Bordello really sealing in that last one. The story itself is Odyssean, a man on his journey to reconnect with his great love, once he learns that she too offed herself shortly after he did.
Much different from my first viewing of it, I appreciate how the film doesn’t miss a beat in launching into Zia’s new existence. I notice delicate features that I completely missed as a seventeen-year-old, like this little hairball tumbleweed on his white bathroom tile. He’ll soon be surrounded by tumbleweeds.
I find myself enjoying the on-the-nose references to suicide, like Zia being employed at the dingy “Kamikaze Pizza.”
There are subtle and interesting moments like when Zia is seen reading a book titled, Eve, a Woman with No Scars, which, after a Google search, has no author. Several startlingly beautiful shots make it through, like the pan-out of a beautiful Russian woman with nothing but her negligee and vodka bottle, laying frozen in the snow.
As for cameos, there are several that stand out:
Nick Offerman makes an appearance as an overly zealous cop still on duty, who shot himself in the head in his previous life.
Tom Waits plays “Kneller,” a person we find sleeping in the middle of the road one night, who wakes up, and says “Hey, why don’t we go to my place?”
Though the rest of the characters are few, we get to see how each one of them once did the deadly deed, an oddly satisfying and voyeuristic relationship with characters.
On my second viewing of Wristcutters, I see more of the hell director Goran Dukic sees.
Hell is where your car sputters to a stop in the middle of the desert.
Hell is where you feel the first spark of love again as you sit in the sands on the ocean shore, and drift off to sleep kissing a person you’re falling for. Only, you wake up to find that you lay in a bed of used condoms, Band-Aids, and hypodermic needles. Tom Waits finds you and tells you to GTFO because that beach is where “intravenous drug users and prostitutes congregated, and it was too revolting for them.”
Hell is where you finally find your long-lost love, only to find her on the arm of a man who goes by “The King” and is played by WILL ARNETT. (GOB leading a cult is exactly as good as it sounds, and he deserved more screen time.)
Hell is where you fucking kill yourself to get away from that person and your life, only to walk endlessly through a starless desert filled with other suicidal losers and you STILL run into your ex.
I don’t know that these characters offer life-changing scenes or tattoo-able motifs, but Wristcutters: A Love Story takes you on a steady journey through its version of hell, where the quirky humor holds up, and the standout hilarious acting by Shea Whigham make it a strong offbeat comedy.
In the end there is a surprising amount of cult storyline, with Will Arnett “The King” guiding his Kool-Aid following through yet another ritualistic sacrifice. But the plot trails off after a confusing climax, and our protagonist is left alone just like in his first life. His one friend takes off with a new girlfriend, and the other, Makil, finally got her “visa” sorted out, and returned to the land of the living thanks to (as she suspected) some kind of admin error. As she leaves, we’re left with the truth that “when a girl says she’ll be right back, she never does actually come back.”
Wristcutters broke the cardinal rule that my professor once made us swear its abidance in blood: Never have your characters wake up only to realize it was all just a dream. This film does that. But somehow, it works. When Zia and Mikal wake up next to each other in their hospital beds in the ER and firmly in the real world, they share the sweetest and most genuine smile when they realize they get a second chance, and suddenly you’re reminded that those are the first smiles you’ve seen the whole movie.