Having a reputation for being the life of the party is largely envied by those who are unable to amuse their fellow human beings. But for Jebadiah Sminch (Mark Robert Ryan), “leaving the conversation when you’ve just told the funniest joke” is the closest he can come to explain his pending death. At the tender age of seventeen (Was it a very good year?), the average-looking teen vowed that if he wasn’t married by his twenty-third birthday, he’d exit the planet on his twenty-fifth.
Ryan Andrew Balas’ film—based on his play, Life in Rewind—courageously explores the final few days of the self-described “happier than ever” high-tech worker. The happiness stems entirely from Carter (Julia Porter Howe). The attractive singer-songwriter is the love of his life, but, alas, they met after his unmoveable, self-imposed deadline. And so the question remains—now that he has found happiness—is it better to die in bliss or disregard a self-imposed sacred pledge?
The sacred aspect, and much of what works best in the film, comes in the form of a “cantus firmus” organ refrain that is frequently joined by piano (notably and especially childlike, near-“Twinkle, Twinkle” as a box of sleeping pills is contemplated), guitar and recurring electronic minimalist natter (at times barely audible, yet still effective). If the latter is the hurly-burly of the world, then the former may be whatever faith we have in it (organ) and the two lovers (strings hammered, plucked or strummed). Written by Nathan Sandberg (with other songs from The Golden Age of Radio and Ribbons of Song), his score—somewhat like Wagner motifs—serves to reinforce the narrative and reduces the need for dialogue.
Indeed, much of the film is wordless. Particularly intriguing is the extended opening sequence (following a brief statement of the aforementioned rationale) where the camera watches Carter awaken. With more motion than the opening of Flesh (cross-reference below) the slow-moving shots and framed angles paint a portrait that is as uncertain as the outcome. Howe keeps her emotional cards close to the chest (perhaps a little too close to lift this scene from fascinating to mesmerizing), facing herself in the washroom mirror after a box of pills briefly slips into view (with a small “live”-captioned print on the wall) then vacillating over which necklace to wear.
That dreamy mood is abruptly shattered with a trip to Sminch’s workplace where his supervisor (Balas) struggles with the news of an unexpected niece then co-worker Donald provides, er, a grippingly illustrated description of a “horse-cock fuck.” The contrast has its effect but, like Carter’s inability to “get” why her boyfriend is adamant in going through with his death-while-happy plan, never delivers a payoff.
By journey’s end Balas’ “experimental narrative” reveals a filmmaker that isn’t afraid to take risks—both with his actors and with his audience. Yet he also stimulates thought. At the too young age of twenty-five how many brave warriors travel to fight on foreign soil—deliriously happy with their assumed invincibility? When, on too many occasions in any era, their last remains are returned to the family, how often do we hear “He died doing what he loved—proud to serve his country”? So is it better to leave the conversation with the upper hand, or wait until all of your life-long wisdom and witticisms fall on deaf ears? JWR