Iconoclastic Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan provides another daunting descent into human despair with his latest, Cannes’ competing “Exotica.” There’s demonstrable growth in his visual and narrative skills here but the writer/director isn’t likely to expand his audience with the sometimes oblique, unnerving saga of interwoven lives whose paths cross with alternately comic and tragic results. It’s decidedly upscale fare with appeal to a niche core, following fest exposure.
A simple synopsis would be futile. Francis (Bruce Greenwood) is a tax inspector who spends every evening at the otherworldly strip club Exotica. He’s obsessed with Christina (Mia Kirschner), who’s having a difficult time with her one-time boyfriend, Eric (Elias Koteas), the platter spinner. When it becomes clear that Eric is unhinged by Francis’ presence, the tax man coerces Thomas (Don McKellar), a pet-shop owner whose books are under scrutiny, to serve as his eyes and ears.
That, at least, represents the surface story. Underneath, there are many secrets lurking and side stories unique to each player, as well as connective links that provide the film’s numerous emotional collisions.
Egoyan constructs the piece like an intricate little thriller, dotted with clues and revelations that draw us along. He’s exceedingly clever at presenting seemingly important pieces of the puzzle and then reversing the meaning of the information. Mirrors are an intrinsic part of the film’s visual and metaphoric structure.
It’s nonetheless a confounding choice for storytelling as he’s ultimately not at all interested in genre convention. He undoes a significant part of what he sets out to accomplish with the implication of a conclusion that will tie his plot ends securely together. What he provides is anticlimactic, fuzzy and considerably less than a knockout emotional punch.
That said, “Exotica” is still a haunting, chilling experience. Egoyan enters into an eerie, vaguely off-center universe that inhabits an instinctual rather than realistic realm. It’s as vivid — though unique — as something one might expect from David Lynch, thanks to accomplished tech work from cameraman Paul Sarossy and production designers Linda del Rosario and Richard Paris. The latter’s title construct is particularly inspired.
The filmmaker also has made significant strides with his casting. Heeffects an odd mix by using seasoned actors including Koteas and Victor Garber with relatively inexperienced thesps. He has an adroit sense of just how much weight each role requires.
There’s little doubt “Exotica” is an apt name for this concoction. There’s also no denying that viewers will be split in their reaction to this pic, which demands a fair amount of interactivity in filling out its more sketchy plot elements.