Gripping, compellingly executed downward spiral pic charts the slow physical and mental deterioration of a genuinely nice guy under the influence of crystal meth. Audience-wowing pic, which snagged the Golden Starfish at the Hamptons for Marty Sader, has a strong shot at theatrical release before cable comes knocking.

A correction was made to this review on Oct. 27, 2004

Gripping, compellingly executed downward spiral pic charts the slow physical and mental deterioration of a genuinely nice guy under the influence of crystal meth. In the best tradition of substance-abuse movies such as “Leaving Las Vegas,” moral baggage is checked at the door while a full panoply of film techniques is brought to bear on the central character’s meltdown from a 240 pound compassionate human being to a 110 pound bundle of misfiring nerves. Audience-wowing pic, which snagged the Golden Starfish at the Hamptons for writer-director-thesp Marty Sader, has a strong shot at theatrical release before cable comes knocking.

Julius (Sader) works at a mental hospital where he logs long hours, gaining the trust of the institution’s inmates by sharing their fantasies and allaying their fears. In voiceover narration, he explains work is his drug of choice: It makes him feel needed.

Then, in rapid succession, he loses his girlfriend, his adoptive father and his all-important job. At the same time, he inherits a rundown bar and a high-flying stepsister, Erica (co-scripter Laura Keys). Without the anchor of purpose, however, his long, slow free-fall seems practically predestined.

Sader’s split role as filmmaker/star reflects pic’s point of view, which both shares Julius’ altered states of consciousness and remains somewhat distanced from them. Neither a “Christiane F.”-type descent into toilet bowl realism nor a picaresque “Drugstore Cowboy”-type road movie, “Most High” is at its best when it goes within the drug experience itself.

Thus, Julius’ first taste of crystal meth comes via a marvelously roundabout route. Smilingly drunk, he sits on a sofa with Erica and her girlfriend and watches fascinated as the two girls get it on, giggling and passing him trays of lines as they fondle each other.

Much later in the film, a now-emaciated Julius has a Burrough-esque encounter with a querulous talking beetle: His horror at discovering himself in conversation with a hallucination is matched only by his interest in what the insect has to say.

Sader’s attempts to cinematically capture altered consciousness are surprisingly effective. Erica and Julius’ wild car ride through the streets of Los Angeles evokes a euphoric sense of power and control by separating foreground and background so that each dimension moves at a different speed.

A gimmicky “pendulum” camera to simulate time-passage under drugs proves less effective, though, than Julius’ obsessive switching on and off of a lamp, as he repeatedly intones, “I’m just sitting here talking to my fucking self.”

Various visual and audio distortions, overlapping sound and image, missing frames, and over- or under-speed cameras are all used sparingly and intelligently to maintain that fragile space between Julius’ experience and the viewer’s. Paul A. Oehler’s extraordinarily evocative, often dissonant score is an extended overlaid trip in itself.

Sader interpolates brief snippets of black-and-white video interviews with real-life recovering and still addicted drug users throughout the film as a kind of reality-check — until Julius shows up within the framework of that B&W footage, indistinguishable from his brethren.

Actor/director Sader subjected himself to a draconian weight-loss regimen for the role, surpassing Christian Bale’s crash diet for “The Machinist.” Like David Cronenberg, helmer Sader is fascinated by the shifting line between mind and body.

Watching Julius’ disintegration is like watching pieces of Jeff Goldblum crumble off and fall away in Cronenberg’s “The Fly.” Pounds and personality ooze away slowly, leaving plaintive ghosts of Juliuses past while the remaining body’s dislocated speech stutters without coherence or character.

Julius’ extreme physical and emotional metamorphosis from cuddly bear to hollowed-eyed Rasputin gives the film its astonishing strength.

Most High

Production

A 2nd Act Films production. Produced by Kenyon Robertson. Executive producers, Laura Keys, James Evangelatos, Julie Gallo, George Gallo. Co-producers, Anthony Imburgia, Manijeh Kuchikali, Tom Adams. Directed by Marty Sader. Screenplay, Laura Keys, Sader.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Gur Shlapobersky; editor, David Rosenblatt; music, Paul A. Oehlers; visual effects, Adrian Dimond; sound (5.1 Digital Surround), Sonicpool. Reviewed at Hamptons Film Festival (competing), Oct. 21, 2004. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Marty Sader, Laura Keys, Kenyon Robertson, Sarah Scott, Nick Roberts, John Klemantaski.

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