A Hollywood couple is stranded in more ways than one in “Dark Blood,” the resuscitated 1993 feature by Dutch director George Sluizer that was abandoned after the sudden death of star River Phoenix. Using the helmer’s straightforward v.o. to bridge some story gaps, the current edit reps a surprisingly coherent vision of a decidedly oddball story set in the Arizona desert (80% of the pic had been shot when production was halted). Rights issues surrounding the negative remain unresolved, meaning “Blood” was shown for free at its Netherlands premiere and is currently a problematic item in terms of festivals and sales.
That any version exists at all is something of a miracle, since the insurance company that took possession of the footage decided to destroy it in 1999 because it didn’t want to pay for storage anymore, leading Sluizer to have it removed from the company’s premises (“They might say ‘stolen,’ though I prefer the word ‘saved,'” the director said at the Netherlands fest). Though the 80-year-old helmer now owns the rights to the film, he doesn’t necessarily own rights to the negative; further complicating legal matters is the fact that the original pic was a U.S.-U.K. co-production, while Sluizer is a Dutch national.
Crowdfunding and Dutch institutional backing helped finance the current version, which starts with an English-language introduction during which Sluizer likens the 2012 “Dark Blood” to a chair that had two legs but now has three, still incomplete but able to stand upright. His commentary during the film consists of dialogue and short scene descriptions, shown over related production stills, that fill in the gaps, though a rewrite has reduced his interventions to just a handful of scenes (all interior sequences that would have been shot in Los Angeles after a seven-week outdoor shoot in Utah, standing in for Arizona).
American woman Buffy (Judy Davis) and her English hubby, Harry (Jonathan Pryce), both Hollywood actors, have driven into the desert in their Bentley for a romantic getaway. When their car breaks down, they try to have it fixed by the mute son (Lorne Miller) of a motel owner (Karen Black, in a glorious cameo), who enigmatically suggests the strangers “stay out of the light.”
Despite a warning, the lovebirds decide to take the barely repaired car to the next big town themselves and wind up stranded in the middle of nowhere. This serves as the perfect excuse for a series of delicious, dryly comic ripostes that reveal some of the pair’s deeper anger and frustrations. At night, Buffy, fed up with her husband’s passivity, walks toward a light she sees in the distance and ends up on the doorstep of a young widower, Boy (Phoenix). Boy’s wife was a Navajo medic probably killed by nuclear radiation from a nearby test site; he’s one-eighth Hopi himself, so he’s got “dark blood” running in his veins, too.
Though Boy is practically a desert hermit, living in a ramshackle shack (seen mainly from the outside), he isn’t about to let his visitors go. His overtures toward Buffy are clearly of a sexual nature, and he seems to ignore the meek Harry entirely, at least until the two men go out hunting, rifles in hand, and Harry confronts the much younger Alpha male about his behavior.
Though the triangle’s back-and-forth power shifts can be taken at face value and are entertaining enough as such, there’s an undercurrent in Jim Barton’s screenplay that suggests something about Native Americans and Caucasians and their relationships to the lands they inhabit, as well as their often strained relationships with each other. It’s a shame, then, that one of the key scenes that would have provided more insight into such a reading, Boy and Buffy’s visit to an underground sanctuary filled with Hopi Kachina dolls, wasn’t fully completed when Phoenix died. A rushed visit to a ghost town and the film’s finale do provide further pointers for subtext seekers, although, appropriately, it’s the rapport among these kooky characters that finally lingers.
Phoenix exerts a suitably charismatic and commanding air in his final role, making Boy a complex, fully mature character. That he’s not always psychologically readable is perhaps partly due to the fact that the story has been rewritten, and a few key sequences are available only in abbreviated v.o. (including the first meeting and a pivotal sex scene with Buffy in which Boy “weeps as an infant”). Davis and Pryce are credible as a long-married couple, and their banter and dissatisfaction ring true.
Technically, this reportedly $8 million 1993 indie looks and sounds terrific, with master lenser Ed Lachman delivering stellar, highly atmospheric work and Dutch production designers Jan Roelfs and the late Ben van Os equally in their element. Harold Jalving’s sound design is crisp, and Florencia Di Concilio’s guitar-heavy score enhances the film’s moods.