This “Seven”-type serial-killer police procedural gives new meaning to the term “high concept.” Working backward from an abstract visual idea, an esoteric Renaissance painting technique called “anamorphosis,” the filmmakers scramble to build a plot around it. Pic provides the ultimate in subtext with no text: Beyond its cool, reflective surfaces and infinite plays with perspective lies nothing — character, relationships, motives all seemingly irrelevant. Even Willem Dafoe as a haunted cop cannot ground these artfully grisly optical illusions, unconnected to any comprehensible storyline. Debuting April 18 at Gotham’s IFC Center, pic’s morbid stylistics may appeal to cable viewers with ADD.
Pic begins promisingly enough. Sophomore helmer/co-scripter H.S. Miller (“Late Watch”), lenser Fred Murphy and production designer Jackson De Govia have fashioned a New York of vast, old, echoing spaces framed in careful compositions: the dilapidated hull of an old freighter, the cavernous vaulted attic of a cathedral-like building, a deserted carnival funhouse — even the counter of a small coffee shop seems to stretch miles into the distance.
Willem Dafoe plays a reclusive, obsessive-compulsive cop (fussily arranging and rearranging purchases on the supermarket conveyor belt). Five years previously, it seems, he killed a suspected serial killer known as “Uncle Eddie,” who painted the word “Dead” on his artfully posed victims. Promoted to detective, he now teaches the aesthetics of crime scenes to rookies.
A new string of murders, these more gruesome and with more far more esoteric artistic references (one corpse is cut open to form a bloody inkwell for a pentagraph drawing), all specifically refer back to Dafoe’s cop, apparently indicating the work of a copycat killer or suggesting that he, in fact, offed the wrong man.
Setups for human interaction between Dafoe, Scott Speedman as a cop rival/sidekick and Clea Duvall as a potential love interest go absolutely nowhere. Miller and tyro co-scripter Tom Phelan have concocted a universe that exists solely in terms of its own aesthetic allusions. Thus, Dafoe’s character’s sole passion, for antique chairs, allows for a relationship with his supplier, played by the ever-inventive Peter Stormare, who can then pontificate (with slides) on the meaning of anamorphosis: “a technique that uses principles of forced perspective to construct an alternate image within the frontal composition.” Or, in the words of Dafoe’s character, “it depends on where you stand.”
Explicating a photograph by Cartier-Bresson, Dafoe’s cop defines art’s “decisive moment” as the instant when composition, form and content conspire to reveal some fundamental truth. Miller and Phelan have apparently forgotten the content.