The Vanishing Point

From my review of Second-Story Man, now up at TOH:

Dr. Spock surely did not recommend bringing your kid on a crime spree. But Monique’s desire to get Maria away from this unstable life for good precipitates the bank robbery from which the rest of the narrative descends, and which forms the best evidence of the filmmakers’ potential. Eric Zabriskie’s bumbling, operatic score mars the scene immeasurably — it clashes with the very sounds on which our tension, like Arthur’s, is predicated — but we’re still left with a startling exercise in increasing panic. Watch as Domring’s watery eyes tighten and the aural evidence piles up: the gunshots, the screaming, the voices that are everybody’s and everywhere except the one he is waiting for.

Reaching such a high-water mark this early in a film can be dangerous, and Second-Story Man eventually succumbs to the close, arid atmosphere it creates. The tone switches from gritty criminality to emotional Rorschach blot, an earth-toned canvas onto which we project romance, buddy movie, heist flick, or indie drama. Trying to be all of these, the film ends up being none; the final-act hysterics are but an overwrought imitation of a movie we’ve already forgotten about. Such twists of plot don’t do justice to what Second-Story Man seems really to be about: the aftermath of a terrible mistake, the lurching effort to pick up and try to start over from scratch.

Faced with the particulars of their past, these are people practically willing themselves to disappear. And so instead of a fitting ending it’s necessary to rely on the film’s uncannily sorrowful images of the world around the characters, like a high, snow-white field used for target practice, where all that is solid melts into air and the ground recedes into sky, or on Arthur’s explanation of a second-story man as “me, when I was younger” — a non-answer, an obfuscation, like that Impala on the point of vanishing.

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