CANNES–“Equinox” is one of Alan Rudolph’s patently personal ensemble pieces about criss-crossing destinies. More deeply mysterious than many of his pix and more socially minded in its depiction of a decaying society that some of the characters yearn to escape, film is full of ideas and evocative scenes. But its low-key, subtle aesthetic and plotline that deliberately takes most of the running time to reveal itself will keep B.O. potential modest.
Matthew Modine toplines in a double role. Henry is an awkward, nerdy chap who remarks, “My whole life seems to be taking place without me in it,” while being induced to reignite a tentative romance with the lovely, painfully shy Beverly (Lara Flynn Boyle).
Modine also appears as Freddy, a swaggering smalltime hood who is married to Sharon (Lori Singer) and works his way up in a gang controlled by Paris (Fred Ward).
At least the first half of the film is taken up with Rudolph laying down lots of dots but not connecting any of them: A homeless woman dies, leaving a mysterious envelope found by morgue worker and aspiring writer Sonya (Tyra Ferrell); mobsters unpleasantly move in on an Italian family restaurant, which serves as one of Rudolph’s trademark public places where his characters can ultimately converge; and an unignorable number of street people crowd around the fringes of the action, creating a backdrop of urban malaise that places everyone’s personal struggles into relief.
So impressionistic and intentionally obfuscating is Rudolph’s technique that it remains unclear for a long time whether one of Modine’s characters is supposed to be a dream, a fictional creation of the other, an alter ego, a twin or something else. For some, this will make the story all the more intriguing, but most audiences will no doubt feel unduly teased or frustrated that it takes so long to get a handle on the story.
But for those with a taste for the director’s methods, “Equinox” is full of lovely scenes and many artistic and emotional pleasures.
Using his characteristically soft but colorful palette, Rudolph, with lenser Elliot Davis, creates a warmly textured interior world that provides a buffer to the harsh realities of the streets (pic was shot on seldom-seen Minneapolis locations), and sketches in a charmingly eccentric group of characters.
At the film’s heart is a touching little-people romance between Henry and Beverly. Few opportunities have entered the lives of these apartment dwellers and the difficult time they have breaking through their mutual reticence and fear of love allows Rudolph to strongly broach the theme of seizing any chances for happiness in life that come along.
Modine and Boyle, both very attractive performers, are effectively dressed down for these roles and Boyle in particular strongly registers the effort it takes for such a thin-skinned character to leap off the deep end into the emotional whirlpool.
Although her part is very tenuously connected to the other action, Tyra Ferrell shines as a bright, ambitious young woman pursuing the mystery of the Modine characters’ legacy and Fred Ward has fun as a gangster who likes to have a naked woman in proximity whenever possible.
Every performance in the attractive ensemble is injected with life and a dash of extra spice, a tribute to Rudolph’s way with actors.
After building up to a tense, entrancing climax that has Modine’s two characters finally meeting in a scene capped with a surprising spasm of violence , pic concludes on an open, genuinely puzzling note that offers no sense of closure. Title’s meaning becomes clear enough, but import of the ending remains elusive.
Shot on modest means, pic is loaded with evocative old tunes that amplify that emotional resonance of the characters’ relationships. All behind-the-scenes craftspeople have helped create a richly appealing look.