This post may contain spoilers and large images that may compromise slower internet connections. Read at your own discretion.
Croatian director and actor Goran Dukić was virtually unknown to the international film industry before this directorial effort. The film, an adaptation of Etgar Keret‘s Kneller’s Happy Campers, is a short story about the afterlife of suicide victims. After a difficult bidding process involving convincing the Israeli writer through a screenplay that properly justifies the story, Dukić still dares to exercise a little artistic license. His choice of cast, soundtrack, and filming style add beauty into an already solid original piece. “Wristcutters: A Love Story” offers a generous view of the desert areas of California, while managing to tackle a delicate topic by approaching it with humour and sweetness.
The film opens with Zia (played by Patrick Fugit) lying in bed, staring straight ahead of him. The slight expressions on his face betray last-minute doubts, but are quickly quenched with a certainty that gets him to stand up. He surveys the chaotic state of his room, and commences damage control by picking up some clothes off from the floor. The starting gesture elevates to a purposeful restoration of order. After a quick dust check, Zia buttons on a crisp dress shirt before the scene cuts to his fully-dressed chracter in his bathroom. Slight noises are then followed by brief glimpse of Zia’s face before he collapses onto the floor. The camera tilts down to reveal a bloodied sink, a razor blade, and an intention to end it all. Zia slips into unconsciousness as quickly as his wrists colour the floor a dark maroon, his last glimpse of the mortal life being a neglected corner-dwelling ball of dust.
Trailing Zia into his next life are unresolved romantic issues with his ex-girlfriend, Desiree (played by Leslie Bibb), and he finds himself in an afterlife specifically designed for those who committed suicide. His new reality is similar to the life he leaves behind, but the muted colours of his surroundings, the star-less skies, and the endless expanse of this new world indicates the residents have it worse. Zia finds a job in the aptly named Kamikaze Pizza, and lives with an easily annoyed Austrian man whose company he doesn’t particularly enjoy. After an examination of his situation, Zia realises that killing himself a second time would only send him into a deeper limbo, and he makes no attempt to end his life again.
During a night out, a girl named Tania (played by Azura Skye) approaches Zia at a bar. On behalf of a bet made with her friend Rachel (played by Sarah Roemer), asks him how he “offed” himself. He shows the gnarly marks on his wrists, and remarks on the rudeness of her question — at least, in the context of their world. Tania is completely aware of this, and the three end up scrutinising the other patrons of the bar. Their game is interrupted by a Russian immigrant named Eugene (played by Shea Whigham), who dares them to guess his method. The girls, obviously turned off, quickly work up a exit strategy, leaving the two men to befriend each other. Zia learns that Eugene killed himself while onstage with his band.
Eugene brings Zia to meet his family, who all happen to be with him. Their bond — unbreakable even in death — makes the usually distant Zia miss his own for a moment. As a result, the two spend time with each other, drinking. One night, during a cottage cheese run for his roommate, Zia bumps into an old friend, who informs him that Desiree also committed suicide. He sets off to look for her, convincing Eugene to join him. They take Eugene’s car, which sports broken headlights and a black hole in the front passenger seat. Zia, in his desire to catch up to Desiree, offers to pay for one more attempt to fixing them, so they can drive during night-time. Just before sunset, they stop by a repair shop owned by Jim (played by Clayne Crawford) and his partner, Mike (played by Mark Boone Jr.), where the car gets an unusual evaluation, and is serviced seemingly without success. Zia and Eugene set off again.
While on the road, they pick up a hitchhiker named Mikal (played by Shannyn Sossamon). She reveals she is looking for the “people in charge”, because she believes there is a mistake in her being there. Her questioning nature is met with Eugene’s resistance. He is convinced that their reality is the best they can get, considering the outcome of their choices. Zia, on the other hand, whose beacon of hope is reuniting with Desiree, is willing to indulge her, though he harbours some doubts himself. As a consequence, it turns the initial journey into a collective one with a slightly different direction.
As the trio drive on, they become acquainted, but the ambiguous nature of their trip cause them to unleash their frustrations. They occasionally bicker over carelessly dropping items into the car’s black hole, and Mikal reaches her breaking point at a gasoline stop, when she overhears Zia and Eugene talking behind her back. As they prepare to set out again, Zia happens upon a lead on Desiree, after a mishap involving a fuel nozzle. Mikal decides to re-join the group.
Desiree’s trail turns cold, leaving Zia depressed. His friends console him, and Eugene offers him a drink. Mikal sneaks the turquoise-painted bouquet of flowers purchased for the planned romantic reunion into the car’s black hole. That night, while Zia is asleep, Mikal pushes a random button on the car, and the headlights turn on. A grateful Eugene, in his euphoria, stops the car and sweeps Mikal into his arms for a kiss. They spend the rest of sundown marvelling over the automotive miracle.
During nightfall, the three almost run over a man (played by musician Tom Waits) sleeping on the highway. The car swerves off the road and crashes, but no one is injured. Eugene wakes him up, and the man identifies himself as Kneller, and he had fallen asleep while in search for his dog. Kneller invites the bewildered trio back to his place, and they acquiesce. His residence, a camp and hotbed of unusual happenings, astounds Zia. From a camper who floats in his chair, to Mikal tossing a match that floats to the night sky, to a fish that changes colour in Eugene’s hands, he cannot bring himself to understand why none of these occurrences happen to him. Kneller responds by telling him they are common, and only manifest when people do not consciously desire them. Nonetheless, he obsesses, and projects his grievances onto Mikal, who finally tells him how she died. Then and there, Zia is convinced that her journey is for a valid cause. Meanwhile, Eugene falls for a throat-singing camper named Nanuk (played by Mikal P. Lazarev).
The camp provides a semblance of home, and Zia, Eugene, and Mikal stay longer than intended. When Zia dreams of getting caught by his parents and a Dalmatian during a prison break, he realises he is still hinged on the memories of his mortal life. While Eugene seems content with the turn of events, Zia and Mikal find affection in each other, and agree to leave the comfort of the camp behind. What Zia, Eugene, and Mikal are yet to find out is that they’ve landed in a gold mine, because even in the world of the dead, miracles can happen.
Vanja Černjul had initially planned on shooting “Wristcutters: A Love Story” with colour infrared film. Exclusively made by Kodak, the Croatian cinematographer would use the film particularly for the shift in hues between the mortal life and afterlife scenes. However, it proved to take too much time, so standard film stock was used in the end. Selected scenes were later refined during post-processing. Regardless of realm, the results are phenomenal. In contrast to the pre-dominantly blue filter of the afterlife, the colours of the mortal world are bright with a pinkish base-tone — much like the colour of flesh when blood still courses through a living body.
To reinforce the bleakness of the afterlife, the film was shot in the desolate areas of California. Dukić even asked his crew to find film props that look so unwanted by the world at large. Items such as defected dinnerware, rusted furniture, and cars that could only be described as “mechanical Frankenstein”, when combined, contribute to the dystopian atmosphere. Even with these additions, the natural magnificence of the Californian outback cannot be ignored.
A demonstration of its brilliant cinematography and my favourite song off the film’s soundtrack is available on YouTube.
While the film’s absurdist approach may not be well-received by some, the message in it deserves to be heard by all, most especially those who are on the brink of giving up. Back in 2007, some controversy arose with regards to the graphic nature in which the film was marketed. But in spite of the questionable approach to its campaign, the “Wristcutters: A Love Story” does not glorify nor romanticise suicide. In fact, its life-affirming elements of redemption and hope endorses the beauty of living without becoming inaccessibly holier-than-thou.
“Wristcutters: A Love Story” urges the viewer to troop head-on in the direction of life, to be open to miracles without expecting them… and at all costs, avoid the black hole underneath the front passenger seat. In its unique presentation to a difficult topic, what I think of the film pales in comparison to the basic yet very important lesson it provides.
If you have thoughts of harming yourself, or know someone who does, please do not give up. Do not trivialise the problems, but also remember that healing is always possible. There are people out there who can help:
- Befrienders Worldwide
- Crisis Chat
- International Association for Suicide Prevention
- It Gets Better Project
- Suicide Prevention International
An expanded directory of online and region-based suicide prevention organisations can be found in the International Suicide Prevention Wiki.