River Phoenix’s Unfinished Last Film Haunts the Berlinale

River Phoenix’s Unfinished Last Film Haunts the Berlinale
Blooming in the desert: Judy Davis and River Phoenix in "Dark Blood"
(© Fine Line Features)

The American desert eco-drama “Dark Blood” was about four-fifths finished when its 23-year-old star, River Phoenix, collapsed and died on October 31, 1993. Yesterday, at the Berlinale, the film’s Dutch director George Sluizer, 80, unveiled the terminally incomplete work out of competition. He has provided it with a spoken introduction and a voiceover narration in lieu of the missing scenes.

The trailer (below) suggests that, above and beyond its story, “Dark Blood” is a ghost movie. Seeing anew the beautiful lost boy of Generation X, who was arguably the most talented young American actor since James Dean, is not an experience to be taken lightly.

 

Bénédicte Prot, writing on Cineuropa, vividly describes “Dark Blood” as “the story of a couple of tourists who explore the canyons in a Bentley, which breaks down in the fierce and fiery stretches of a desert violated by nuclear tests, then left to die: they ask for the help of a local man with some Indian blood.

“The woman, Buffy (Judy Davis), is an uninhibited American with tangled hair like those we used to see in road movies in the early ’90s. Her husband, Harry (Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce), is a self-centered and irascible movie star who does not understand that time cannot be bought with money. The fellow who offers them inhospitable hospitality is called Boy (River Phoenix), who, since the death of his wife due to radiation, lives in a world both ruthless and magical, composed of amulets and little bells tinkling in the wind.”

Prot continues: “During a forced cohabitation on both sides, which gives the impression of a scene behind closed doors in the immensity of the desert, the white man meets the native, wisdom meets patience, humility meets ambition, nature meets those responsible for its most deeply poisonous wounds (Phoenix was, in fact, an environmental activist), and incomprehension is total, with no way out.

“For Boy, the fact that there is nothing to do in the desert during the day because it is too hot, during the night because it is too dark, is very natural, but for Harry, it is as despairing as the enigma of the sphinx. Faced with destructive individualism, Boy’s character represents innocence condemned.”   

After being shut down following Phoenix’s death, the movie became the property of its insurance company. Deadline reported from the Berlinale press conference that in 1999 Sluizer “learned the footage was going to be destroyed and within two days was able to save it and take it back to Holland.” The director of “Utz” (1992), he went on to remake his “Spoorloos” (1988) as the influential Jeff Bridges thriller “The Vanishing” (1993) and five more films.

After learning in 2007 that he has an aneurysm, Sluizer said that he decided, “Before I die, I want to put ‘Dark Blood’ together as best I can.”

Although “Dark Blood” is headed to next month’s Miami Film Festival, it is not known yet if it will receive a theatrical release because, Deadline says, it “is still tangled up in a rights conundrum.”

It would also be necessary for any potential distributor to consult with Phoenix’s family, which is not participating in the film’s festival screenings. For more on this and the complexities of the rights issue, read the Deadine article.

Phoenix will likely be on people’s minds this April when “The Company You Keep” is released. Robert Redford’s drama about the fates of members of the radical anti-Vietnam War agitators of the 1969-73 Weather Underground, who have evaded arrest and changed their identities, will invoke memories of Sidney Lumet’s 1988 “Running on Empty.” Phoenix was Oscar-nominated for his poignant portrayal in that film of the talented pianist son of a fugitive Weathermen couple (Christine LahtiJudd Hirsch) who wants to stop running and live a normal life with his girlfriend (Martha Plimpton).

The most iconic of his subsequent performances was that of Mike, the gay hustler who suffers from narcolepsy in Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho” (1991). In 1993, while Phoenix was still alive, I interviewed Van Sant about his career up to that point for the Faber and Faber book devoted to the screenplays of  “My Own Private Idaho” and “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.” In describing the filming of the improvised fireside scene with Keanu Reeves, who played Scott, Mike’s best friend, Van Sant offered some precious insight into Phoenix’s process as an intuitive actor:

“It was a short, three-page scene that River turned into more like an eight-page scene,” Van Sant said. “He added a lot of things and changed the fabric of his character in that scene. He’s a songwriter and he worked on it like he does one of his songs, which is very furiously. He had decided that that scene was his character’s main scene and, with Keanu’s permission, he wrote it out to say something that it wasn’t already saying – that his character, Mike, has a crush on Scott and is unable to express it – which wasn’t in the script at all. It was his explanation of his character.” 

Watch the “Dark Blood” trailer: