|Shannyn Sossamon plays a hitchhiker convinced she's in suicide Limbo by accident. (Autonomous Films)|
In this dark comedy, the end is only the beginning
A dark fable about suicide titled "Wristcutters: A Love Story" doesn't sound like the most appetizing night out, does it? Forget about a first-date movie; this could be a built-to-order last-date movie.
Yet Croatian filmmaker Goran Dukic's debut feature, adapted by him from Etgar Keret's short story "Kneller's Happy Campers," turns out to be a sweetly grim lark: a road film through Limbo. It takes the self-pity associated with ending one's life and uses it for the purposes of mordantly aware comic fantasy. There are life lessons learned here, but the blackhearted gag is that everyone's already dead, so it hardly matters.
The central conceit is that all suicides find themselves reborn into a world exactly like the one they just left - only worse. It's a post-industrial wasteland of gas stations, strip malls, and crummy apartments; the skies are always overcast, except at night, and there aren't any stars. No one's able to smile.
"Who could think of a better punishment, really?" muses our hero, Zia (Patrick Fugit - the kid from "Almost Famous" all grown up and with the weight of the afterworld on his shoulders). Zia slit his wrists in a funk over his girlfriend, Desiree (Leslie Bibb); now he works at Kamikaze Pizza and "lives" with a surly Austrian roommate (John Hawkes), who sports a gunshot wound in his forehead.
Limbo being Limbo, there's not much to do except hang out at the bar and place bets on how the clientele offed themselves. Cinematographer Vanja Cernjul films it all with a harsh gray metallic sheen: the indirect illumination of the Damned.
The plot kicks in when Zia hears that Desiree followed him in suicide a month after his death. Figuring she must be around here somewhere, he hits the road with newfound friend Eugene (Shea Whigham), a dyspeptic Russian rocker who electrocuted himself onstage in a fit of ennui. Eugene's family, depressives all, have made it over to this side, too. "All together in Russia, America, now here," he says. "Not every family lucky like we are."
"Wristcutters" quickly becomes a ghostly California road movie as the two drive into the mountains in Eugene's battered station wagon, picking up a comely hitchhiker named Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon) along the way. Mikal is convinced she's here by accident and wants to find "the people in charge." Could they be the angelic para-sailers we keep glimpsing high up in the sky?
The movie sustains an ingratiating sense of downer farce for its first two-thirds, spinning out the consequences of self-annihilation in a cleverly unromanticized manner. Fugit and Whigham make an engaging odd couple, the latter forever warning the former about the black hole under the dashboard (it eats sunglasses and anything else you might drop; I had a car like that once). A jauntily wheezy score full of Balkan pop songs keeps the fatalistic tone on track.
The rules of the film's universe eventually take over the narrative, though. The threesome stop at a tent city in the mountains overseen by a ragtag guru named Kneller (Tom Waits), and the appearance of the great, yawping, unclassifiable singer-songwriter tilts the movie off its axis. The burgeoning romance between Zia and Mikal gets a little sticky even as Eugene finds a potential mate in Nanuk (Mikal P. Lazarev), perhaps the least likely Inuit throat-singing mute ever to appear in a movie.
With the arrival of a charlatan rival guru named Messiah (comedian Will Arnett), "Wristcutters" devolves into hectic noise; the final scenes play out like a muffed version of a lesser Tom Robbins novel. Yet the air of weary benevolence hangs on. It's hard to hate a movie where small, useless miracles happen only when you don't expect them to. And it's impossible to hate a movie where Tom Waits for all intents and purposes gets to play God.
Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe .com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.