As visually arresting as it is narratively taut, the noirish “William Vincent” is a movie based to a large degree on faith — in cinema’s possibilities and its audience’s depth. Quaint, you might say. Buoyed by a name cast including James Franco and Josh Lucas, helmer Jay Anania’s quasi-experimental/existential drama could find a home at arthouses, where it’s sure to be dismissed by some but beloved by others.
People will use the word “tragedy” if they lose a parking space, but “William Vincent” is a tragedy in the true, classic sense: epic pride leading to an epic fall. As he describes in voiceover, William (Franco) has run off an airplane to fetch a book and is left behind; before he can leave the airport, he learns his plane has gone down, incinerating all aboard. A kind of portal opens up before him, and William walks through, stepping out of the old life he was leading and into an anonymous, liquid substratum of New York City.
William buys counterfeit ID from shady characters in Chinatown; he takes a class in film editing, learning to cut nature films. His needs are few. His connections are nil. He enjoys an odd kind of freedom, having nothing to guide him but his own caprice: In one very funny scene, William sits at a bar, near a woman being bored to death by her date, and silently critiques the man’s pomposity via rolling eyes and dubious looks. The woman is charmed, and so are we (the guy’s a jerk), but the point is that William has no one and nothing to answer to, or for, and thus enjoys a perilous license.
But his presumption that one human being can exist without others is steeped in hubris, and his solitude doesn’t last long: A not-so-chance encounter with a shady character known as the Boss (Josh Lucas) and his curiously gentle henchman, Victor (Martin Donovan), draws William into a world of call girls, cocaine and the Boss’ concubine, Ann (Julianne Nicholson), whose sexual favors are parceled out like Christmas bonuses. William’s seeming immunity to her physical charms haunts Ann, and she in turn affects him: Into the vacuum he’s created of his life, she’s a whiff of pure oxygen — and a spark.
The film’s various elements are in marvelous sync. The actors all give memorable performances, particularly Franco. The look of the film, which was achieved via conventional shooting (with an adapterless Sony EX1) but an exhaustive post-production process, keeps one subliminally entranced as the spare plot rolls out. The vaguely mischievous, minimalist score by John Medeski is richly atmospheric, as is Iaeden Hovorka and Laura Sinnott’s sound design, virtually a character in itself.
Despite all the surface quietude of “William Vincent,” it’s a movie of extremes. William has seized the opportunity to step out of life; it’s not clear why, but his decision is haunting. If he were to die again, who would know or care? The insignificance of man-as-an-island is reflected in the nature films William is editing, of which Anania makes lengthy use: A hummingbird may be beautiful, but it’s always close to starvation; the beautiful, ornate jellyfish that pulse across William’s monitor are little more than “organized water.” And so is William, until love disrupts his universe. For all its austerity and art, Anania’s movie might just be a black-edged romance.