You know you're in for it when one of the first shots of The Life Before Her Eyes features a canted, low-angle shot of a high school building cutting into an ominously moving sky, much like Friedkin's shot of the statue of Pizzuzu in the desert from The Exorcist. Unaware of this directorial foreboding, two spirited seventeen-year-old girls -- Diana (Evan Rachel Wood
) and her best friend Maureen (Eva Amurri
) -- are gussying themselves up in the bathroom, making themselves attractive to the boys. Diana says to Maureen, "When is it all going to start?" "What?" "Our lives." As if on cue, bullets and screams are heard and the two girls are suddenly sucked into a Columbine-like horror. Michael (John Meguro), the kid with the gun, bursts into the bathroom, and forces Diana and Maureen to make a Sophie's Choice decision about who will be permitted to live and who will die.
Fifteen years later, we get an idea of who survived the carnage when Uma Thurman
clears the fog from a bathroom mirror gazing at her troubled face as the adult Diana. This Diana -- an art history instructor married to a successful professor (Brett Cullen) -- lumbers through her day in a semi-catatonic state, disturbed by a commemoration being held at the high school for the massacred students and teachers of the tragic event of 15 years ago. But there is something out-of-kilter here, since the director, Vadim Perelman
(House of Sand and Fog) lingers on Ozu-like shots of empty, silent spaces (a slow pan of the kitchen revealing in lush detail toast, cream cheese, and tomatoes; artistically rendered shots of empty, unmade beds) and slows down movements to a languid, funereal pace over mournful James Horner music. Perelman's reality is magical, poetic and not at all what it seems. The Life Before Her Eyes is not P.T. Anderson's Magnolia, but if the sky suddenly opened up and began raining frogs, you wouldn't be surprised. Article continues below
Perelman gives himself a hernia flashing backwards and forwards documenting the younger and older Diana's life journey, punctuating his dissertation with sturm und drang thunder claps, lightening flashes, and rain, rain, and more rain. And when nature doesn't unload its torrents, there's plenty of slow motion swimming instead; the residents of this small Connecticut town have to live with so much liquid it's surprising they haven't developed gills. There is a self-satisfied artistic taint to the proceedings. Perelman savors each glance, each gesture, each movement. Compositions are milked for every bit of meaningful, beard-stroking impact. The images look beautiful, almost over-ripe, the flowers as ravishing as the toast. The Life Before Her Eyes is tasteful, overwrought direction at its finest.
But one sticks with the film anticipating Perelman to perform a masterful magic trick in the grand finale. Instead, Perelman delivers an unsatisfying editorial time-shifting sleight-of-hand that cries out for magical potions and caterwauling incantations, if not the plague of frogs. The rain becomes a deluge, the thunder surges to horror film intensity and the intercutting between Wood and Thurman reaches an Intolerance fever pitch.
The one ray of light through this murky mix is Uma Thurman, whose grace under fire is immense. Thurman keeps it all real, even when she has to wallow in the mud, screaming out her daughter's name.