If you want to evoke hell in cinema, all you need is smouldering fires and horrific torments; and for heaven, just paint everything pearly white. When it comes to limbo, however, the iconography is far less defined.
Neither here nor there, limbo tends to be both familiar and uncanny at the same time. In the supernatural mysteries Jacob’s Ladder, The I Inside, Donnie Darko, Stay and Reeker, so close is limbo’s resemblance to home that its occupants struggle to recognise they are even there. In the recent psychological horror 1408 (as well as in the classic Last Year in Marienbad), it is depicted as that most ordinary of transitory spaces, a hotel room.
Wristcutters: A Love Story is different. It may be true, as protagonist Zia (Patrick Fugit) puts it, that “everything’s the same here, just a little worse”, but this limbo’s inmates are all too aware of where they are, and why. The film begins with Zia putting on a Tom Waits record and carefully cleaning his apartment, before opening his veins in the bathroom. We then find him in a colourless purgatory for suicides, where the days are hot and dusty, the night sky is a starless black, the jobs are dead-end, no-one smiles, and “everyone’s an asshole.”
Hearing that Desiree (Leslie Bibb) – his ex-girlfriend and the reason for his suicide – has also “offed” herself, Zia and his new friend the Russian musician Eugene (Shea Whigham) set off to look for her in Eugene’s barely road-worthy old banger. Soon they have picked up hitchhiker and accidental suicide Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon), who is on her own quest to find the rumoured management so that she can get herself sent back – but it is not until the three lost souls encounter Kneller (Tom Waits), and his makeshift campsite where small miracles take place, that they can begin to see a new future where life and death once again have value.
Like Hirokazu Koreeda’s After Life, Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, Shinya Tsukamoto’s Vital and Christoffer Boe’s Allegro , Wristcutters: A Love Story depicts limbo as a place of dreary banality occasionally touched by the transcendent – and despite working with a very low budget, newbie director Goran Dukic manages to find romance, pathos and wildly oddball humour in the drabbest of settings and bleakest of materials. Using his own script (adapted from the short story ‘Kneller’s Happy Campers’ by Etgar Keret), the Croatian-born helmer has crafted a bittersweet whimsy that thankfully never feels the need to apologise for its own quirky absurdity.
A road trip with an Eastern European in the driving seat and the music of Gogol Bordello playing on the stereo inevitably evokes Liev Schreiber’s Everything is Illuminated (and Eugene is based on that film’s Ukrainian star, Eugene Hutz) – but in the end Wristcutters: A Love Story is, like the limbo it portrays, a peculiar hybrid of recognisable, second-hand elements that somehow add up to something entirely sui generis – an idiosyncratic piece of magical realism whose characters are literally on the road to nowhere. Dukic allows the very strangest of details to emerge with such deadpan blankness (matched by the characters’ unsmiling faces) that it all seems almost commonplace – but in fact this film, in keeping with its paradoxical title, is anything but conventional.
Despite its potentially serious subject matter, Wristcutters: A Love Story remains defiantly inconsequential – slight, even – with melancholy forming its frayed wallpaper rather than its wallowing pool. It is drily funny and determinedly eccentric, and even if you see the ending (at least in its barest outline) a mile off, its particulars unfold in a manner that never fails to bemuse, to befuddle and, most importantly, to charm. No surprises, then, that its final third features a party of wide-eyed zealots worshipping a self-appointed guru. For this film has cult written all over it – although, unlike its false Messiah (Will Arnett), Dukic is the real deal, and with Wristcutters: A Love Story he has worked his own minor miracle.