Review: The Life Before Her Eyes
A Columbine-like school shooting results in best friends Diana (Evan Rachel Wood, the irresponsible one) and Maureen (Eva Amurri, the good, churchy one) being cornered by a gunman (John Magara) in the bathroom. We get flashbacks of the girls’ friendship leading up to this incident. Meanwhile, we also see scenes of a now fifteen year older Diana (played by Uma Thurman) struggling with issues of guilt/post-traumatic stress, an unruly child, and an unhappy marriage to older man Brett Cullen. Oscar Isaac plays a druggie douche whom Wood gets pregnant to, and Jack Gilpin plays a concerned high school teacher.
Based on a novel by Laura Kasischke, this Vadim Perelman (whose “House of Sand and Fog” didn’t work for me at all) directed, Emil Stern (a first-timer) scripted drama from 2008 is one of the most infuriating, confusing, and ultimately unsatisfying films I’ve seen in ages. The following will be an extremely spoilerific review, so there’s a **** SPOILER WARNING **** from here on in. Read this review after you’ve seen it, you can read plenty of other spoiler-free reviews beforehand.
The film is either structured from a grown-up Uma Thurman’s recollections and long-held guilty feelings towards a school shooting from 15 years ago, or it is from the point of view of her 17 year-old self (Evan Rachel Wood) seeing her potential future life play out before her eyes as the school shooter descends upon her and her best friend Maureen (an immensely appealing and beautiful Eva Amurri, daughter of Susan Sarandon and some guy Susan Sarandon had sex with). The way the film is done, either scenario really could be the truth (I’m not suggesting there isn’t a right answer, in the filmmaker’s eyes, though), and if ever a story needn’t have been ambiguous, it is this one and there are problems with either option. If the film is Thurman’s recollections as a survivor, then her marriage to Brett Cullen and Wood’s seeing him at a lecture 15 years earlier looking no different in age makes absolutely no sense, and isn’t remotely credible anyway (Neither is Thurman credible as the fifteen years older version of Wood, with Thurman being about 37 at the time, which means the character must’ve been held back in school a few years at least). Also, I find it hard to believe that she survived the shooting anyway, she looked pretty damn dead to me.
Both interpretations also give us no clue as to what happened to poor Maureen, either, which is extremely frustrating. If Maureen survived, where are Thurman’s guilt feelings (if that’s what they are) coming from? We never get the sense that the deaths of everyone else weighed on her, just her best friend. And if this is all from Wood’s point of view as she stares down the barrel of a gun, why wouldn’t she just imagine Maureen surviving too? I’ve heard that maybe Wood was imagining a possible future (or even getting a true vision of her future), and she realised her life would end up nowhere and decided to be the one to die, but whilst this is the most likely answer, it still doesn’t wash with me (though at least it answers why Maureen isn’t seen as an adult). If Wood really is the one who died in the school shooting (and indeed this is likely true. When asked, Thurman claims not to be a survivor), then she has an impossibly vivid imagining (or vision- I don’t exactly believe in psychics, so uh-uh on that one) of her potential future life before her eyes (and look at the title, surely this is the correct assumption, right?). Sure, it’s enough to assume that her life might be disappointing and unfulfilled, but to such detail as this? Including a 15th anniversary of the shooting? Such foresight, really? No frigging way (Not to mention the film’s sense of morality here is seriously on the nose). I mean, why would she imagine having a daughter given the name her aborted foetus was going to have, let alone a daughter (Gabrielle Brennan) who seemed unable to be controlled (and I couldn’t work out the purpose of such a character anyway in relation to the rest), or perhaps either the daughter or Thurman were meant to be a bit unbalanced. I was never quite sure. Who the fuck has time to imagine such things in the moments leading up to their possible death and why is such complexity even necessary? So she had to have survived, right? No, not likely. Which brings me back to Maureen. I understand that the way the story plays out, makes it impossible for us to see a future/adult Maureen, but this is unsatisfactory for the audience who have grown fond of her. We want to know what happened to her, and sadly we don’t find out, purely because the writer/author wants to play narrative trickery on us instead of really caring about the characters. It robs us, emotionally. Meanwhile, at one point Thurman screams that Cullen’s not her husband. Stuff like this, and some frantic behaviour from Thurman near the end make you wonder if the character isn’t just insane, which doesn’t so much suggest an inability to cope with a huge past tragedy as it does suggest that she might even be an unreliable narrator, and that muddies the water a bit (Not to mention the film’s sense of morality is a bit on the nose). It’s counter-productive to what the film is meant to be saying and makes one then question if the shooting didn’t happen, if it didn’t happen the way Thurman remembers, etc.
This isn’t just a case of me ‘not getting it’. I think I know what the film wants me to get out of it (like I said, the title gives that way), but the filmmaker (or author, I’ve not read the book) is going out of their way to make it unnecessarily hard for me to ‘get it’. I’m sorry, but this is all just so impossibly dense and maddening. Like I said, there’s likely a definite solution, but we’re talking “Mulholland Drive” level stuff here, and at least that film had lesbian sex in it. I’m all for not being spoon-fed, but this film actually did need a more conclusive ending, or else there are too many unanswered questions even if you know what the overall meaning was supposed to be. Even if you know what it all meant, the way it’s done makes you slightly suspicious of it possibly being open to interpretation What point is there in giving us an ending open to interpretation for a story like this, outside of narrative fanciness? Personally, I think it should’ve just been the story of the schoolyard shooting, the other stuff is given less weight, and just ends up confusing things too much, not to mention making a complete waste of the Amurri character, who seemed so important at first. I felt awfully cheated.
Look, this film had potential, schoolyard massacres and high school issues are interesting and important to me. Wood, and especially Amurri are fine here (Thurman less so, but her scenes aren’t written very plausibly or interestingly) But something has just gone absolutely screwy here, it will make no damn sense to about 80% of the audience (Don’t believe me? Check out the IMDb message boards for a start). I’ve seen it twice and I’ve not made 100% sense out of it still. An overly complex treatment of something fairly simple and important (and thus it’s actually quite offensively gimmicky), but as such, it ends up hard to give a crap about anyone or anything (not to mention hard to write a plot synopsis without being too vague or lying your arse off). Someone’s playing silly buggers with the narrative and it robs the film of any real emotional weight that it should have had. A frustrating disappointment.