Nobody sets out to make a cult film, right?
Flicks like "Fight Club," "Heathers" and "Donnie Darko" were meant to appeal to mainstream audiences, but complex story lines and quirky sensibilities sank them at the box office. If not for the rise of video and DVD, they might have been forever damned to Hollywood limbo -- the domain of films that lose money but aren't bad enough to become tongue-in-cheek guilty pleasures (à la "Showgirls").
But if it is possible to predict the next cult classic, you might want to bet your life on "Wristcutters: A Love Story" -- an endearing little gem that deals defiantly in another kind of limbo: the gray area between life and death. Following buzz-heavy screenings at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and a lengthy struggle to find distribution, this offbeat slice of suicidal celluloid will finally begin building its cult next month.
"It's a love story that takes place in the place you go after you commit suicide," said Courtney Solomon, the head of After Dark films, who snagged the rights earlier this year. "It's a dark comedy, or a really dark comedy, if you will." The flick hits theaters October 19 on about 20 screens before expanding.
Smiling, he added: "It's a movie you haven't seen before."
He ain't kidding. "It takes place in the suicide afterlife, where people are physically incapable of smiling," said "Almost Famous" star Patrick Fugit, who kicks off the film with a trippy sequence in which his character Zia slits his wrists, depositing him in a bizarre afterlife that is neither heaven nor hell. "[The afterlife in the movie] is all bleached out. All the colors are crappy. It's basically the real world, just crappier. You still have to pay rent. You still have a job and all that stuff."
In this version of purgatory, people walk around with holes in their heads, bloody wrists and other eternal reminders of how they offed themselves. As Zia takes in his new surroundings, he meets a Russian rocker (Shea Whigham) who lives with his family of suicidals; a beautiful woman convinced she's there by mistake (Shannyn Sossamon); an eccentric veteran of the realm (Tom Waits); and a cult leader (Will Arnett) trying to convince his followers that if they drink the Kool-Aid with him again, they're bound to eventually end up in the Promised Land.
To further complicate things, Zia learns that the original cause of his grief, his girlfriend Desiree, has also made the jump. "We have a relationship that goes bad, and I commit suicide over it," he said, grinning at his co-star Leslie Bibb ("Talladega Nights"). "I'm living in this afterworld for a while, and then I find out that she's committed suicide too, and she's looking for me in this afterlife. So I go looking for her."
Bibb explained that beneath all of these dark trappings is a love story. "People have tried to broach the subject of suicide and the afterlife before, but Goran [Dukic], our writer and director, broached the subject matter in such an original way," she said. "It's the quirkiest, most fun trip."
Whether he meant to or not, first-timer Dukic's movie is so cult-ready, it could have been crafted in a test tube: Mix in the dark subject matter of "Heathers," eccentric young actors and cred-heavy veterans, gruesome characters who'll become instant Halloween costumes, and extremely quotable lines. It might be highly doubtful that "Wristcutters" will open with "Transformers"-like numbers, but it's easy to imagine art-house specialty screenings of the film for years to come.
"People do actually quote the lines, and it's gotten such an underground following just from doing the festival circuit," Solomon said of the response so far. "It's a great movie to show at midnight."
It's also an easy movie to root for since, quite simply, it shouldn't even exist. "These people have sat with this for two years, done festivals all over the world, and showed people their film," Solomon said of Dukic and his hard-working team. "I love helping them out. That makes it a lot more fun for us."
Fugit's got some not-so-fond memories of the ultra-low-budget shoot that took place some three years ago. "When we first got into filming it, it was really crappy," he said. "None of your clothes fit, it was really hot, the car we were in had no interior -- it was just an all-metal cage. But now, watching the movie, I really miss it."
But Bibb remembered having too much fun at the time. "You'd find yourself laughing, but in this afterworld if you've killed yourself, you're incapable of smiling," she recalled. "Which was the hardest thing because we're all big dorks, and all we do is laugh and goof off. So, you'd be in the middle of your scene and say, 'Shoot! I just smiled. OK, take three.' "
Believe it or not, "Wristcutters" gave the actors lots to smile about, from the big, offbeat laughs in the script to the sweet, Capra-meets-Bergman message that lies beneath. "Once you're out of a relationship, you think it was so wonderful, but maybe it wasn't that great. And it certainly wasn't worth killing yourself over," Bibb observed. "It's about appreciating what you have now."
Right now, the people behind "Wristcutters" are appreciating exactly what they have: a release date. Quite possibly, they also have a movie that could sidestep Hollywood limbo to become the next great cult classic.
Check out everything we've got on "Wristcutters."
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