Graduating to features after some well regarded short films, writer-director Aaron Woodley appropriates more than a little of the darkly obsessive, mind-bending qualities of the work of his uncle, David Cronenberg, in “Rhinoceros Eyes.” The difference here is that the unrelenting quirks feel like studied artifice rather than the fruit of a genuine affinity for that claustrophobic world. Winner of the Discovery Award voted by the press in Toronto, this tale of a prop-house employee in his own make-believe dimension has the surface hallmarks of cult video fare, but is not sufficiently compelling as drama to have significant impact.
Reclusive young Chep (Michael Pitt) stays holed up in the maze-like prop factory where he lives and works, emerging only at night to watch romantic melodramas at the local movie house. Regarded as an idiot savant, he is able to locate the most peculiar objects from among the warehouse’s unruly tangle of curios. He meets and becomes smitten with his dream customer, Fran (Paige Turco), a movie production designer with an obsession for detail and authenticity.
Fran’s requests for obscure items — a pair of rhinoceros eyes; an antique Irish wooden prosthetic arm; a severed index finger — spur Chep to increasingly reckless acts of theft and violence during his nocturnal excursions to round up the goods. His crimes prompt an investigation by Phil Barbara (“Queer as Folk’s” Gale Harold), a dapper cop with a star-struck fascination for the film biz. Both Fran and Chep inhabit rich fantasy worlds: Hers is shaped by her maniacal immersion in her work, his by his carnival-like environment and tenuous grip on reality, which becomes more fragile as he loses the ability to separate his exchanges with Fran from the overripe screen love scenes he memorizes at the movie house. Chep becomes increasingly ruled by visions of an alter ego — made of assorted prop-house junk and rendered with stop-motion puppet animation recalling the style of the Brothers Quay or Jan Svankmajer. As this fantasy creature grows larger and more controlling, Chep’s equilibrium begins to shatter.
Played like a psychological horror movie but with relatively few of the standard shocks, Woodley’s film has plenty of inventive elements and an intriguingly offbeat romantic pairing at its center. And the fascination for film as pure, imaginative fabrication — presumably born of the director’s experience on his uncle’s sets — comes through loud and clear. But despite the effective design of a densely atmospheric world of weird paraphernalia and disquieting sounds, and a persuasive performance from Pitt as an unhinged innocent, the material never fully comes alive.
Woodley soaks up influences from Cronenberg to “Eraserhead” to Ed Wood (Chep dons a mask of wrestler-turned-“Plan 9 From Outer Space” star Tor Johnson for anonymity on his crime spree). But the director has some way to go before gaining fuller storytelling and character development skills, and a confident style of his own.