If you see just one picture this year directed by a Croatian and based on an Israeli novella set in a cosmic limbo reserved for suicides, you owe it to yourself to make it Wristcutters: A Love Story. The feature debut from Goran Dukic, a graduate of the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Zagreb, is the most irresistibly original film I’ve come across in ages.
Patrick Fugit — whom you’ll almost recognize from 2000’s Almost Famous — plays Zia, a twentysomething victim of love who has “offed” himself only to awaken in a low-rent purgatory, a run-down wasteland of an afterlife. Things aren’t in living color, naturally. They’re desaturated, and the night sky doesn’t hold so much as a single twinkling star. Otherwise, Zia’s new existence isn’t a whole lot different from his old one. “Who could think of a better punishment, really?” he deadpans in the voiceover. “Everything’s the same here; it’s just a little worse.”
During the day, Zia dishes out slices in a seedy pizza parlor. Afterward there’s an equally seedy, smoke-filled bar. (Nobody’s exactly sweating the surgeon general’s warnings.) Here he befriends a former Russian rock guitarist named Eugene (Shea Whigham), who, with help from a bottle of beer, electrocuted himself onstage after being heckled one too many times. He brings Zia home to meet his family (yes, the gang’s all there), and this is a scene I’ll not soon forget.
Like emotional dominos, one member of the tightly knit clan after another took their own life out of unbearable grief. Reunited in death, they are as close to bliss as it is possible to be in a place where it’s physically impossible to smile. The old man thinks he’s on an episode of “Leave It to Beaver,” not in a never-ending Beckett play. “There aren’t many,” he tells Zia over dinner in their cramped apartment, “who are as lucky as we are.”
Later, Zia hears that the woman who left him in life has joined him in death, and he talks Eugene into accompanying him on a half-baked road trip to find her. Here, as in the rest of Dukic’s film, it’s the details, the little touches, that surprise and enchant: Under the passenger seat in the Russian’s junker is a black hole into which Fugit’s character keeps dropping sunglasses, maps and cassette tapes. Signs on roadside stores are handwritten. Business must still be conducted, but nobody’s into it enough to put forth more than minimal effort. When the two accidentally drive away from a desert gas station, yanking the nozzle off the pump, they’re confronted by a beefy attendant. He’s not angry, though. It happens all the time. He just wants Zia to fill out some metaphysical paperwork that asks, among other things, what was going through his mind when the incident happened.
A raven-haired hitchhiker (Shannyn Sossamon) winds up coming along for the ride, and the three soon find themselves guests of Tom Waits at a ramshackle operation that seems to be part commune and part carnival. The movie is based on Etgar Keret’s story “Kneller’s Happy Campers,” and Waits plays Kneller — so I suppose it could be a campground of some kind. The kind where every now and then a dime store miracle happens — a match Sossamon lights drifts up to heaven; the headlights on the junker suddenly work; people float a few feet off the ground, that sort of thing.
As you watch him here, you can’t help but wish Waits got to work in front of the camera more often. It’s a wonderful, whacked-out performance. The final act ties things up in surprisingly touching fashion, with a series of clever, completely unexpected twists that make Wristcutters far and away the feel-good film of the year — at least, you know, among movies in which nobody has a pulse.
Dukic’s done remarkable work here: He’s produced one of the most singular and imaginative films in recent memory without an iota of showboating or pretension. And, as though that weren’t enough, he’s managed to make a movie in which everyone is dead thoroughly life-affirming.
Wristcutters: A Love Story