I’m actually struggling for the words to describe this film. By rights, it shouldn’t exist: it took 4 years to film, was completely self-funded and was filmed in some 20 real locations. And you’ve probably never heard of it.
You see, the guy who wrote and directed it had a vision of what he wanted to produce and he didn’t want that tainted by outside influence. So he paid for everything himself, giving everyone equal pay. Consequently, without the backing of a major studio, distribution and advertising was extremely limited. Which apparently he was ok with.
Both Spike Jonze and David Fincher, two names I greatly respect, loved it enough to ‘present’ this film to the world, which is what ultimately drew me to it.
And it is a beautiful film.
The basic plot revolves around two hospital patients, a young stuntman and a little girl, who strike up an unlikely friendship in 1916 Los Angeles. Between them, they tell a story about five bandits who all want to kill the dreaded Lord Odious.
The tale they weave forms the majority of the film, existing as its own thing, brought to life by the imagination of young Alexandria.
Since much of the action takes place through the eyes of a young girl, those scenes are filmed with vivid colours and in a very stylised fashion (here the director employs techniques he used in the dream sequences in his earlier film, The Cell).
As the story is brought to life by her imagination, everyone and everything is interpreted by her experiences. For instance, the five bandits are all played by people she knows and the minions of Lord Odious all look similar to the scary boiler room man. One of my favourite things in this movie is when the man describes one of the characters as an Indian. Clearly, as an American, he is talking about a Native American but young Alexandria interprets him as Asian. It’s little touches like that which add a whole load of charm and help bring the film together.
And it has to be said, the story sequences are larger than life, filmed in very striking, real world locations all around the world. That in of itself is such an impressive feat that later learning it was self-funded absolutely blows my mind.
Part of the drama stems from real world matters affecting the story. And watching young Alexandria’s reaction is absolutely heartbreaking at times. You see, much of her lines and interactions are real, as the director tried to limit the number of lines she was given. Risky but it really pays off: I defy anyone not to be moved by her performance.
The real world parts, by contrast, are minimalist, being subtly shot from a child’s vantage point (save for one animated sequence). Ordinary everyday things take on a different tone and the music is equally subdued.
If this film has any flaws its that it is perhaps too artistic. I absolutely adored it but I try to conceive of who this film is aimed at and I’m struggling to imagine any of my work colleagues enjoying it. I totally understand why this was not a commercial success.
For me, however, it is one of those rare pieces of ‘cinema as art’. Freed from commercially driven constraints, the director is able to craft the film he wants. And in that, it is glorious.
Roger Ebert saw this film and placed it in his top 20 films. He suggested that you should watch it for no reason other that it exists. Given the background to the production of this film, he’s right: there will never be anything quite like it.
TL:DR “A movie so independent no one has heard of it. A truly artistic endeavour and worth seeing if only for its production.”