There would always be a logical, if somewhat morbid, curiosity about what River Phoenix's final screen performance would have been like. Mr. Phoenix's tragic overdose in October 1993 happened between five finished weeks of Utah locations for Dutch director George Sluizer's Dark Blood and a three-week studio shoot in Los Angeles that never took place, with the insurers taking possession of the material. Mr. Sluizer eventually got hold of the footage just as it was about to be disposed of, and, faced with his own illness, made a decision to finish the film as best he could while still alive.

     The director did not even attempt to shoot the missing scenes (allegedly a full fifth of the project), preferring to edit the available material as close as possible to the original storyline, and filling in the blanks with his own voiceover, but the resulting picture floats in a rather strange limbo: neither a finished film nor an exploitable one (due to ownership questions that limit it for now to festival or one-off screenings), nor even a very interesting one. Its tale of an urbane couple whose marriage is on the rocks (Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce) lost in the middle of the desert and saved by a recluse half-Indian with possible psychotic tendencies (Mr. Phoenix) might not have been a good film had Dark Blood ever been properly finished. In part a rather old-fashioned seventies-ish acid fable about finding yourself in the middle of nowhere, in part a creepy tale of sexual obsession, what remains of the material is preposterous enough to warrant enjoyment as a cult midnight-movie projects, especially given Ed Lachman's absolutely ravishing location photography, but comes across as ill-formed.

     While the wish for Mr. Sluizer to leave his film as finished as possible is fully understandable, the result can seem ill-advised, especially in the wake of a generally disappointing filmography whose only peak was his excellent spooky thriller The Vanishing (which he himself remade to diminishing returns in the US). As for Mr. Phoenix, sadly, his mercurial qualities as an actor are nowhere to be seen in a mumbling, half-hearted performance in an impossible role; both Ms. Davis and Mr. Pryce, saddled with equally thankless characters, fare little better, though at least they seem aware of the outlandishness of the project. Mr. Phoenix's reputation might have been better off had Dark Blood just remained locked in a vault.

Cast: River Phoenix, Judy Davis, Jonathan Pryce
Director: George Sluizer
Screenplay: (1993) Jim Barton, (2012) Mr. Sluizer
Cinematography (1993): Ed Lachman  (colour)
Music (2012): Florence di Concilio, James Michael Taylor
Designers (1993): Jan Roelfs, Ben van Os
Costumes (1993): Jane Robinson
Editor (2012): Michiel Reichwein
Producer (1993): Joanne Sellar (Scala Pictures, Fine Line Features)
Producer (2012): Mr. Sluizer (Sluizer Films)
USA/United Kingdom/The Netherlands, 2012, 85 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 official out of competition press screening, Berlinale Palast (Berlin), February 14th 2013


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