A gritty, pumped-up thriller with jaw-dropping plot twists to spare, "Heaven" kicks off in strong, stylish fashion but is eventually weakened by a convoluted, contrived plot.

A gritty, pumped-up thriller with jaw-dropping plot twists to spare, “Heaven” kicks off in strong, stylish fashion but is eventually weakened by a convoluted, contrived plot. The second feature from Auckland writer-director Scott Reynolds (“The Ugly”) comes off like “The Crying Game” meets “The Usual Suspects”; tall tale, which opens today in Gotham and L.A., revolves around a transsexual stripper and includes a dizzying series of narrative kinks that will make viewers work hard to keep track of everything going on. As a hard-edged thriller, pic reps a marketing challenge for Miramax, but it will stir up conversation on the festival circuit and could interest hip, young audiences.

Robert Marling (Martin Donovan) is having a bad year. His beautiful, bitchy wife, Jennifer (Joanna Going), has dumped him, she’s trying to extract every last penny from him in alimony payments and is about to try to gain sole custody of their son (Michael Langley). Marling, who’s a less-than-successful architect, also has a big-time gambling problem and tends to drink too much. Things are so bad that the only project he’s working on is the redesign of his low-life friend Stanner’s (Richard Schiff) strip club, the Paradise.

That’s where Marling meets Heaven (Danny Edwards), an imposing transsexual dancer who is tormented by violent visions, most of which accurately predict future events. In a story rife with improbable coincidences, Heaven just happens to be in therapy with a nasty, wildly unethical psychiatrist, Dr. Melrose (Patrick Malahide), who is sleeping with Marling’s estranged wife while counseling Marling, and using Heaven’s visions to try to further his own financial well-being.

Heaven’s hallucinations keep getting more horrific, particularly the ones involving Marling, and she is continually trying to convince the skeptical architect that something truly terrible is lurking around the corner. Meanwhile, the increasingly psychotic Stanner is pressuring Heaven to reveal her dreams to him.

Reynolds keeps things suitably unbalanced by often jumping forward a couple of scenes and then instantly flashing back, a technique that gives pic an appropriately off-kilter feeling. Although the various plot strands finally connect, the bloody, jolting finale is not nearly satisfying and lacks the mystery of the early going. But the helmer makes sure it’s an adrenaline-filled ride, and story’s twists and turns are enthralling enough to make viewers ignore the holes in the plot for much of the duration.

Donovan is good in the lead role, with a tightly wound performance that’s all nervous twitches and tics. Still, the character would have benefited from a little more depth, something that explains his raging appetite for boozing, gambling and confrontation. Other cast members are also strong — notably Malahide, who is a delight as the absolutely evil shrink, and Schiff, as the curiously likable sleaze Stanner. Edwards does a reasonable job as the title character, though the transsexual element seems tacked-on without much thought, simply to add a little spice to the mix.

Soundtrack ranges from ominous orchestral numbers to dark, grungy rockers, while Simon Raby’s largely nighttime lensing plays up the gaudy strip-club atmosphere. Pic was lensed on location in Auckland, but most of the leads are not from New Zealand, and local accents are heard only occasionally from supporting thesps.

Heaven

New Zealand

Production

A Miramax Films release of a Midnight Films production. (International sales: Miramax Intl., New York.) Produced by Sue Rogers. Executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein. Directed by Scott Reynolds. Screenplay, Reynolds, based on the novel by Chad Taylor.

Crew

Camera (color), Simon Raby; editor, Wayne Cook; music, Victoria Kelly; production designer, John Girdlestone; costumes, Emily Carter; sound, Mike Hopkins, Dave Whitehead. Reviewed at World Film Festival, Montreal (Cinema of Today), Sept. 1, 1998. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Robert - Martin Donovan Heaven - Danny Edwards Stanner - Richard Schiff Jennifer - Joanna Going Dr. Melrose - Patrick Malahide Sweeper - Karl Urban Tree - Jeremy Birchall Nicely - Clint Sharplin Sean - Michael Langley
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