If you've ever been to a film festival, chances are you went hoping to find something like Wristcutters: A Love Story. Held together with duct tape and extension cords, shot on film stock that looks like it was rescued from a Dumpster and full of extras who appear to be the director's best friends, the movie is obviously a labor of love, which is ironic considering that it's also one of the doomiest, most caustic bad-taste comedies you'll see all year. It's as solipsistic, morose and selfish as a 16-year-old's suicide letter — but in the best possible way.
Director Goran Dukic's feature debut is an indie like they used to make, back in the days when Jim Jarmusch would grab a few weird-looking bystanders and some borrowed equipment and make a low-key slacker masterpiece like Stranger than Paradise. Wristcutters betrays the influence of Jarmusch not just in its casting of professional hobo Tom Waits in a supporting role — asking the all-important question, "Do I look asymmetrical to you?" — but also in its deadpan way of observing life and its malcontents. What might at first seem like a cynical one-note joke mellows into a rich, well-told romance, the kind even Hollywood doesn't know how to make anymore.
If your idea of heaven is a place where you can smoke all you want, sleep all day and drink and drive with impunity, then you've found your cinematic pearly gates. Wristcutters is set in a very specific division of the afterlife — call it the suicide branch — where everyone goes to the same dingy bars, "Love Will Tear Us Apart" plays all the time on the jukebox and low-fat cottage cheese is the only thing in the fridge. The latest addition to this slate-gray, industrial world is Zia (Patrick Fugit), a disheveled loner still very literally nursing his wounds from a recent bad breakup. When he hears his ex might have followed suit — she's somewhere in the desert of this purgatory — he sets out on a road trip in an ailing station wagon with his pal Eugene (Shea Whigham).
For all its black humor, Wristcutters is no bummer: The surprise of this scruffy, inventive little film is that it takes on the qualities of a classic rom-com when the men come across Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon), a former junkie looking for a way back to the land of the living. She didn't kill herself, she claims, she only overdosed: "I hate it here — it's hot as balls and everyone's an asshole." Dukic is Croatian, and his movie — despite being cast with a few former next-big-things — is free of the smug, obvious ironies common to most American indies. Most importantly, he doesn't try too hard: Dukic knows that when portraying a whacked-out alternate universe, the best thing to do is play it straight. "We're all immigrants here," Eugene observes, and the line works both as a sardonic punch line and a genuine profundity — much like just about everything else in Wristcutters.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].