US / 94 minutes / color / Arramis, Mysteria, Gruntworks, Omnicomm, ITN Dir & Scr: Lucius C. Kuert Pr: Rafael Primorac, Robert Miano, Lucius C. Kuert, Marlon Parry Cine: Keith Smith Cast: Robert Miano, Danny Glover, Billy Zane, Martin Landau, Meadow Williams, Michael Rooker, Silvia Spross, Gretchen Becker, Alan Wooley, Carlucci Weyant, Peter Mark Richman, Cassandra Gava, Gary A. Kauffman, Katarzyna Wolejnio.
A strange and challenging piece of neonoir that’s as enigmatic as something by David Lynch (although it’s not at all in his style) that I’ve had to watch twice just to get my head around . . . and I may at some time feel the need to give it a third whirl.
Once upon a time Aleister Bain (Miano) was one of the most sought-after scriptwriters in Hollywood. Now he’s crouched over his portable typewriter in a crummy motel room fighting a losing fight with writers’ block. He’s three months overdue with his latest script for producer Finelli (Zane) and he’s out of money for the rent although not, it seems, for whiskey and cigarettes, both of which he consumes interminably.
At the start of the movie we don’t know this, because in the opening sequence someone comes into Aleister’s room and puts a bullet through his head.
And then the phone rings.
And then Aleister moves to answer it.
And then he’s in a barebones office fielding the questions of an interrogator (Glover), who may be a cop or perhaps some kind of psychopomp trying to organize the dying Aleister’s jumbled memories of the last few days of his life. “Where am I? How did I get here?” says Aleister, invoking one of the standard tropes of film noir.
Aleister (Robert Miano) gets a light from his interrogator.
The tale that Aleister tells is indeed a jumbled one. Producer Finelli, quite clearly disbelieving Aleister’s claims that the script is almost finished, gives him a two-week deadline to complete it. This scene is rather neatly handled by the two players, because it’s quite obvious neither of them believes that Aleister will meet the deadline, yet they’re both going through the formal motions of pretending to do so.
Producer Finelli (Billy Zane) has little time for Aleister’s excuses.
Further distracting Aleister from his task is that he’s been approached by a young UCLA film-studies grad student, Lavinia Cordoba (Williams). He arranges to meet her at a swanky Italian restaurant, to which he’s driven in a taxi prominently numbered 666 and driven by a strange, golden-fanged cabbie (Wooley). It’s at this point we start to realize this isn’t going to be just another film noir—that, while it’s going to be playing fast and loose with all sorts of noir tropes and clichés, like the amnesia reference noted above, it’s doing something rather different. Another warning is, of course, the spelling of Aleister’s forename.
That cab . . .
. . . and that cabbie (Alan Wooley).
Inevitably, at the restaurant, Aleister doesn’t have the money to pay for the meal, although he makes a play of searching for his credit card. Lavinia happily coughs up the requisite $120, but extracts from him the promise that she can come visit him in his “office” the next day so as to watch him at work.
When he gets home he finds that the motel manager, Sanders (Landau), has changed the locks.
Aimlessly Aleister drifts to his favorite watering hole, the one where barman Jack (Weyant) has let him run up a huge slate even though it’s evident he’s unlikely ever to be able to pay it. It’s the middle of the night and the place is dark but, implausibly, Jack has left the door unlocked and a flagon of whiskey at one of the tables. In typical fashion, Aleister makes short work of the whiskey, and is soon in a drunken slumber—a slumber from which he’s woken (or is it all a dream?) by a beautiful woman (Becker) who tells him that, even though he can remember nothing of it, they have a relationship, and, as an afterthought, informs him that earlier she “took care of that little rent problem of yours.”
Jack the barman (Carlucci Weyant) finds Aleister (Robert Miano) sleeping there in the morning.
And sure enough she has. He wakes in his room later in the morning to discover the rent’s been paid up for the next six months.
Lavinia (Meadow Williams) easily charms Aleister.
Lavinia arrives and is almost admiring of the dingy squalor of his room:
“I feel like I’m in an old film noir of the ’50s, like Touch of Evil. . . . I love my old black-and-white noirs, like Kiss Me Deadly, Notorious, The Killing. All the dim lighting and femmes fatales and doublecrosses . . .”
He agrees that he always chooses to write in somewhere that’s appropriate to the script he’s working on and tosses off a few writerly bon mots—“I always write the beginning last, so I won’t curtail my creativity”—to impress her. They also discover a confusing message on his answerphone, a woman hysterically shouting that he’s in danger and concluding, according to Lavinia, with the words “Are we <<no “the”>> dreamers or the dreams?”
They go out for a breath of air, to be confronted by Captain McCarthy (Rooker) of the LAPD. McCarthy gives him a photograph of a woman whom Aleister recognizes as the one from his vision in the bar last night:
McCarthy: “The lady in that photograph was brutally murdered last night. ‘Brutal’ is actually an understatement. We had to use her teeth to make a proper ID.”
Stony Captain McCarthy (Michael Rooker) spells out the situation to Aleister (Robert Miano).
The woman was the wife of Senator Robert C. Mitchell (Richman), and she was murdered in a phone booth while trying to call Aleister’s number. The obvious conclusion is that it was she who left the hysterical message on his answerphone. But how could she at the same time have been paying Mr. Sanders for Aleister’s next six months’ rent?
Aleister’s “Fairy Woman,” Senator Mitchell’s wife (Gretchen Becker), fumbles the coins at the phone booth as her murderer stalks.
The tale becomes ever twistier, with more and more conflicts between different versions of events. What’s for sure, however, is that it’s inspiring Aleister. For the first time in months he’s writing like a demon, despite falling over pretty frequently from the amount of booze he’s putting away. The script that he’s writing is, of course, based on the events that are happening to him and on his conspiracy theory that Mrs. Mitchell knew something that, if made public, could derail her husband’s current re-election campaign, and that the senator accordingly had her “dealt with.” Our uncertainty grows as to what it is we’re watching: the events that Aleister is adapting for his script, or a dramatization of the script itself, or even a reality that’s being molded by the script.
The skepticism of the interrogator (Danny Glover) grows concerning Aleister’s story.
Visually Mysteria is quite superb, with lighting and cinematography (and some superlative shot-construction) that are almost self-consciously noirish. Most of the best of this work is too subtle to show here, as with some beautiful overlayering of differently angled shots in a street scene, but here’s an attempt, as Aleister leaves Lavinia on the UCLA campus and walks into the light from a low sun . . . or does the light signify something else entirely?
There’s a sense of joyous creative anachronism about the mise-en-scène. Aleister batters away at a typewriter that looks like it belongs in the late 1960s or early 1970s, and his phone appears to be of similar vintage, yet other props—like Finelli’s cell phone—are determinedly up-to-date. When Aleister is given an incriminating piece of CCTV footage, it’s on VHS rather than DVD.
Senator Mitchell (Peter Mark Richman) puts the squeeze on Aleister (Robert Miano).
The sets are in general very simple, even minimalist, in keeping with film noir’s traditions; for one of them, supposedly a coffee bar, there’s no pretense that it’s anything but a set.
The performances are uniformly fine, with Miano splendid as the disintegrating scripter, Rooker excellent as the gritty cop and Landau offering us a gleefully squalid rendition of the motel manager; after seeing him eat a burger you may be avoiding your local BK for a while. My only quibble is with the soundtrack, which I found rather dull, repetitive and eventually intrusive.
Martin Landau as Sanders, the seedy motel manager.
That the movie’s self-referential is beyond question: it’s very much a writer’s piece, centering as it does on a writer who works for the movies. Some might call it pretentious, which could probably be a reasonable judgment; on the other hand, I quite like me some pretentious, so that aspect doesn’t trouble me.
Angles and shadows: this is noir cinematography.
Mysteria is worth a watch for the visuals alone, and for the lovingness of their homage to classic film noir. And, if you’re as intrigued by the rest of it as I found myself to be, you might find that rewatching it becomes a habit.