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The Unspoken

Enigmatic relationship study ---the first fiction feature from "Hoop Dreams" helmer Frederick Marx --- works better as a choreographed performance piece than as satisfying drama. Overstudied plotting and minimalistic dialogue will make story tough sledding for most auds, although Rob Sweeney's stunningly varied lensing and the scope of helmer's ambition do reward serious investment. Ultimately, "The Unspoken" will only be talked about on the artiest of arthouse circuits.

Enigmatic relationship study —the first fiction feature from “Hoop Dreams” helmer Frederick Marx — works better as a choreographed performance piece than as satisfying drama. Overstudied plotting and minimalistic dialogue will make story tough sledding for most auds, although Rob Sweeney’s stunningly varied lensing and the scope of helmer’s ambition do reward serious investment. Ultimately, “The Unspoken” will only be talked about on the artiest of arthouse circuits.

Story centers on a young man named Jean (Russia’s Sergei Shrinev), who escaped from a mental asylum after 14 years of inexplicable confinement. He heads to an abandoned motel complex (the pic was shot in rural Iowa) that appears to be familiar to him from his earlier life.

The mute man’s sense of safety there is disturbed, however, when a very noisy woman called Cory (Martie Sanders) suddenly shows up, complete with a handgun and a succession of skimpy outfits. She’s a nurse, dumped on the roadside by her doctor boss. Without means to get back to the big city, she overlooks the handsome young man’s strangeness and moves right in, soon passing out after a drug-and-booze binge.

Jean thinks Cory has croaked, and he quickly buries her out back, leading to one of many arresting images, that of a woman’s pale face surrounded by dirt and a halo of pills. There are also mandala-like shots of writhing crawfish and many segs featuring pale skin against dark, sometimes foreboding settings.

The roles require much physical stamina, and the leads are very good at exercising the elemental dynamics of nurturance and domination — less Adam and Eve, in this case, than Courtney Love and Edward Scissorhands. But the role-play concept is a strangely disembodied one, since — when he finally talks — Colm O’Reilly’s voice subs for that of the beautifully sculpted, slightly androgynous Shrinev (who toplined the superb Belarussian-Polish “Summer of Love”), and the lion-haired Sanders, who rarely shuts up, has a dry, screechy voice that doesn’t exactly work to woo viewers, or Jean, for that matter.

Eventually, the man’s long-estranged, Bible-thumping mother (Laura Hughes) and a slightly mellower black preacher, Reverend Bob (“ER’s” Harry J. Lennix), show up at the no-tell motel.

The introduction of two more characters, along with copious, blue-tinged flashbacks, serves to answer some narrative questions, but they muddy the waters dramatically. It’s not at all clear what Marx and scripter Steven Ivcich want to say about these religious types, except that they really don’t like their repressed and controlling ways.

Payoff explaining Jean’s incarceration is not quite disturbing enough, and his final explosion of words, although better written (and dubbed) than one might expect, is insufficient to the demands set up by everything that went before.

Pic survives, then, on technical qualities, with potent pictures supported by a subtle score featuring burbling percussion and breathy alto flute. Ultimate message — that “we’re connected by suffering,” as the newly released protag asserts, and that shame must be shed to fully embrace life — is an important one. It’s just not articulated convincingly or, at almost two hours, succinctly.

The Unspoken

(DRAMA)

  • Production: A Warrior Limited Partnership production. Produced, directed by Frederick Marx. Screenplay by Steven Ivcich, Marx.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Rob Sweeney; editor, Greg Snider, Marx; music, Mark Messing, Max Callahan; production designer, Wen-Li Ayers; art director, Corky O'Connor; set decorator, Craig Copher; costume designers, Stacy Ellen Rich; sound, Seth Greene; choreographer, Laura Jane Cavanaugh; line producer, Jasmine Kosovich; assistant director, Anthony Aguilera; casting, Rachel Tenner, Mickey Paskal. Reviewed at Taos Film Festival, April 17, 1999. Running time: 115 MIN.
  • With: With: Sergei Shrinev, Martie Sanders, Harry J. Lennix, Laura Hughes, Zaks Lubin, Jim Gehring, Marc Daniels, Tony Dobrowolski, Joanna Holt Mishler, Colm O'Reilly.
  • Music By: