We shot the movie Dark Blood in 1993. Unfortunately River Phoenix died before the end of the shooting. For me, the director of the movie, and many others it was a very sad and tragic experience to lose such a gentle and gifted actor. When I got severely ill myself I had the urge to put the material we had shot together while I still could. If I could make a comparison, we had a chair with two legs and I wanted to add the third leg to edit and preserve what we had achieved. The fourth leg will always be missing, but the chair would then be able to stand upright. Please take pleasure in the unfinished film Dark Blood.
So opens Dark Blood, with director George Sluizer introducing the 2012 cut that premiered nineteen years after its production. Sluizer died just two years later, and from his introduction we can surmise that its release was intended as something of a final act.
Death is at the heart of the movie, flowing thematically through its brooding, spiritual, apocalyptic desert landscape. The fact that the film is so closely bound to the deaths of both its director and lead actor almost makes one contemplate whether the story possesses a kind of dark magic that leaked out into reality during its telling. It is all but impossible to separate Dark Blood from the facts surrounding its production – especially given its introduction explicitly tying the two together. An oddity in cinema history, the film strikes me as something of a strange, radiant (or more fittingly, radioactive) gem.
Scenes that had not been shot at the time of River Phoenix’s death are substituted with narration of their action and dialogue, spoken over silent shots or short montages of freeze frames. Sluizer was right to suspect he could give the film a third leg: his approach salvages the film effectively, leaving it standing upright, and the narration of missing scenes is well executed to the extent that it comes to feel like an experimental but intentional dramatic device. That is not to say the missing scenes wouldn’t have contributed significantly to the whole – most of them are key scenes developing the relationship between Boy and Buffy –, but with their narration the full plot is imparted, allowing the film to tell its story in a way that doesn’t overtly jar or disrupt the viewer. As such, the film offers an immersive, thoroughly enjoyable experience.
The plot follows married couple Buffy (Judy Davis) and Harry (Jonathan Pryce), whose car breaks down making their way across the desert. Buffy is a former playboy bunny, we are told, and Harry an out-of-work movie actor. Here they seek assistance at a cabin inhabited by Boy (River Phoenix), a young man living alone in the desert. Within a short driving distance is a radioactive ghost town, and St. John – a Nuevo Pueblo where the Native American inhabitants of the ghost town were relocated after its radioactive contamination.
Boy lost his wife to cancer – brought on by the radiation – and now lives alone in his cabin. He makes dolls which he believes have spiritual powers, placing them on a shrine inside a bunker he has furnished to prepare for what he believes is the imminent apocalypse. He is a self-styled survivalist and shaman of sorts, a recluse living in self-imposed exile from modern society.
Awaiting car repairs the couple find themselves trapped at Boy’s cabin, who deflects Harry’s initial request to drive them to the nearest town instead (‘Ain’t no motel in St. John.’). Harry is reduced to bargaining – first to ‘pay handsomely’ for the drive (‘I couldn’t do that, I still have some tuning and stuff to do on this truck.’), then to purchase Boy’s truck above value to drive there himself (‘You can’t buy your way out this one, mister!’). Tension builds as it becomes clear Boy is sexually interested in Buffy, and it seems he might intend to hold the couple captive at his cabin until he gets what he wants from her. Multiple failed escape attempts by the couple are to no avail: Boy ‘rescues’ Harry from dehydration walking through the desert, then both from radiation in the contaminated ghost town.
Screen time is divided fairly equally between the Phoenix/Pryce/Davis trio, whose performances are stellar – they elevate the film to a level it could have never gotten to with actors of lesser talent.
Phoenix plays the lead as Boy, an eccentric young man who identifies as Native American and whose personality combines rural and spiritual traits in a way that gels together seamlessly. Phoenix portrays gentle and violent qualities in the same breath, his character both the abused and the abuser, with strong principles skewed and shone through a warped soul. He completely inhabits his character, performing the role with a cadence and timing as off-beat as it is on-point. The edges of Boy’s character feel clearly etched on the screen, and as the viewer gets to know him better Boy ultimately becomes a sympathetic character, against all odds. Phoenix uncovers these sympathetic and moral qualities in what on the surface appears a psychologically broken and violently menacing antagonist. He is captivating in what might be the finest performance of his tragically-shortened career.
Pryce plays a middle-aged actor with a civilised and intelligent demeanour, but who is also deeply cynical and easily irritable. He has come to rely on money and status as his survival tools – tools he finds worthless after his charming but quirky Bentley breaks down in the desert. His sudden loss of power triggers immediate frustration and impatience, and a slow-building, jealous anger directed towards his wife for what he perceives as her coy encouragement of Boy’s sexual interest in her. These emotions are built over time to an intensity that is thoroughly convincing at each step. Pryce uses every moment on screen to enrich his performance, transcending what would otherwise be insignificant moments in the script – he imparts meaning through tone and gesture when the script doesn’t give him substance.
Davis plays a woman at the edge of fading youth, a mother and wife who in younger years performed as a Playboy Bunny for a stint. Her meeting with Boy, who happens to have an old picture of her as a Bunny pinned on his cabin wall, and who tells her his dolls have magical powers to bring him things he wants (‘You must want a lot of things.’), leads her to be in wavering degrees curious, charmed, attracted, sympathetic, caring, concerned, and scared for her and Harry’s safety. She is riding an emotional rollercoaster from the moment they encounter Boy. Davis switches between subtle displays of these emotions expertly, drawing the viewer into the tension of the conflict between Harry and Boy. Buffy is a woman caught in an ever-changing assessment of the current situation, strained by circumstance but attempting to guide events towards their most peaceful conclusion. Davis plays the role with sophistication and complexity, her performance acting as the glue holding the drama together.
Death looms over everything. The nearby radioactive ghost town, rendered uninhabitable by the military performing nuclear tests, foreshadows the apocalypse Boy is preparing for. His wife died from cancer brought on by that radiation. Then there is the desert as environment, taken in isolation, where life can barely survive. Boy goes out to hunt food but the pickings are slim – lizards, snakes, and small rodents. There is little life around. Frequent references to the cultural destruction wrought on the Native American people by colonial explorers and modern Western powers adds to the film’s morbid associations. Even the local gas station attendant mourns the dearth of human traffic passing through the area, eager to tell Buffy and Harry how busy things once were back when the nuclear test site was operational. Buffy is constantly reminded of her past career, and refers to a picture of her from this period ‘a ghost from the past.’ Harry hasn’t worked in over a year, he tells Boy. Everything is dying.
The title suggests death, too: as well as a reference to the Native American race, ‘dark blood’ brings to mind the darkening of blood that occurs after death.
The initial encounter of Buffy and Harry with Boy almost immediately makes explicit reference to this theme. Boy throws stones off titanium castings hung up around his porch, recovered from the abandoned nuclear facility. They ring in low, gong-like tones for several seconds.
‘It’s like right out of the belly of the beast or something, huh? That’s death’s music you’re hearing.’
The film is a statement on death and destruction, but it is startling is how it manages to speak on such morbid subjects while being so entertaining. In contrast to the bleak or depressing viewing experience we might anticipate, we are told a story in bright, vivid colours – characters full of life and passion, set in the blazing light of the desert –, that fascinates and pulls in the viewer to a world as spiritually intriguing as it is tragic and wistful. It is a great trick Sluizer has pulled off, playing darkness and light off each other to perfect cinematic effect.
Ultimately the conflict between Harry’s defiant and entitled behaviour, and Boy’s inability to emphasise or respect him, lead to a fatal result. Harry splits Boy’s head open with an axe during a conflict sprung from misunderstanding, but importantly occurring moments after Buffy has sex with Boy – Harry outside chopping wood furiously –, as a last ditch attempt to resolve the conflict and escape to St. John. Boy dies in Buffy’s arms after asking her to unbutton her blouse as his dying wish. It is a superbly acted scene, tinged lightly with shades of absurdism that quickly dissipate as the viewer realises the violent gravity of preceding events.
In the final shot Harry and Buffy drive off as Boy’s cabin, Boy dead inside, goes up in flames. We now see that the dark forces that had obsessed Boy are real, and the couple are an embodiment of those forces. The violence of Boy cannot be disregarded, either: the film becomes a statement on violent escalation, mimicking the nuclear apocalypse and genocide that has occupied the narrative thematically.
Did Boy will these destructive forced into being? The film leaves the viewer to think and meditate on what has happened.