Monday, September 10, 2012

Sleeper's Wake (2012)

If your script is tragic enough, it doesn’t need to be good. The audience will still be moved.

Actually, I don’t believe that. Or, I don’t want to believe it. But some members of the audience I was part of yesterday, during a screening of Sleeper’s Wake, made we wonder. I heard gasps and oh no’s—expressions of genuine shock. So one might argue that Sleeper’s Wake is good, for it had these people going. But Sleeper’s Wake is not good. Its moments are shocking not just for their content, but from the fact that they come from nowhere. They’re not built up, not prepared for. Which, in turn, makes them necessary to keep the audience engaged. Confused? At times, so was I.

John Wraith (Lionel Newton) is a South African magazine writer; recent victim of a horrible loss. Due to circumstances never fully explained, the SUV he was driving veered off the road, seriously injuring him and killing his wife and only child. He is naturally distraught, unable to work, and close to the bottle. He eventually leaves his house for a secluded chalet in the woods.

I’ve never suffered a tragedy like Wraith’s, but Newton's portrayal of it seemed real enough to me. His character spends the film looking haggard and thin; on the verge of tears much of the time. His alone-time, what we see of it, is gut-wrenching. I believed in John Wraith.

I did not believe in anyone, or anything else in Sleeper’s Wake. The meat of the story is John’s developing relationship with a troubled 17-year-old named Jackie (Jay Anstey); a beautiful girl with a domineering father and no mom. Her mother, we’re told, through conflicting accounts, died during a brutal break-and-enter not long ago.

Jackie’s father, Roelf (Deon Lotz), is a religious zealot who beats her. Or, he’s simply an overwhelmed man of faith with a temper, and the black eye came from someone else. Either interpretation is credible. I’m not sure why director (and screenwriter) Barry Berk put so much emphasis on Roelf’s Christianity, but I suspect it was to make us dislike him. Since it had no relevance to the plot, I drew no such conclusion.

Anstey, as Jackie, is petulant, volatile, and gorgeous. Over the course of several nude scenes and heart-to-heart talks, she manages to seduce the much older John, whose scruples wax and wane. She also reveals to him her version of the events that destroyed her family, and he reciprocates with his own.

These conversations aren’t particularly well-written; worse, they seem interchangeable. If you switched the scenes in which they take place, they would function much the same—revealing a little bit of a backstory that in no way impacts the main plot. The scenes themselves are contrived. One would think that these woods, and mountains, and beaches that John and Jackie traverse and screw in were only a square kilometer in total—because the couple inevitably run into people they know, at exactly the wrong time for them, but the right time for a fidgeting audience.

I don’t demand realism for its own sake. But just as great abstract painters can paint in a realistic way, but choose not to, great screenwriters must ground themselves in what is true, then build upon that. Berk does not. I can believe that a lonely, older man like John, faced with the sight of naked Jay before him, would succumb. I can also believe that John, widowed and once a father of a girl himself, would resist. But I do not believe that he would say no, then proceed to re-clothe the girl, as she stands stock-still, then literally shove her out the door. This makes for a memorable scene, but it’s not real life. It’s not good filmmaking. And it’s typical of Sleeper’s Wake.

Sleeper’s Wake screened Sunday afternoon, August 10, 2012, at Toronto’s Jackman Hall; part of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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