Fantasy-prone protagonist fuels quirky, cinema-obsessed debut
Directed by Aaron Woodley
Cast: Michael Pitt, Paige Turco
The first film produced under the auspices of indie film chain Madstone Theaters, Rhinoceros Eyes is an appealingly offbeat genre-buster that effectively commingles the last 10 years of independent film into one quirky package. With this low-key drama/comedy/fantasy/horror film, first-time Canadian writer/director Aaron Woodley has crafted a loving ode to outsiders that owes as much to Hollywood fantasist Tim Burton as it does to faux-Slavic animators The Brothers Quay.
Michael Pitt (Murder by Numbers, The Dreamers) stars as Chep, a dissociative twentysomething orphan who lives and works at a Toronto prop warehouse. (He just “showed up” one day mixed in with a load of furniture and household items.) Amid the fantastic detritus of countess films and stage plays, Chep has created his own unreal world—something like “Sanford and Son” as directed by Sid and Marty Krofft. Obviously unable to cope with the so-called “real world,” Chep's sole excursions outside the warehouse are to a local revival theater that seems to show the same cheesy black and white romance night after night.
One day, an attractive, detail-obsessed production designer named Fran (Paige Turco from “All My Children,” “Party of Five” and “The Agency”), walks into the warehouse while Chep's oddball boss is out. Fran is working on a local film shoot and is desperately searching for some extremely obscure props, including the titular orbs. She appeals to Chep for help. “No problem,” he tells her. Of course, finding said objects does prove to be a problem. The smitten young Chep perseveres, however, which only encourages Fran to unveil even more bizarre items from her want list. The more outrageous Fran's requests, the more Chep is motivated to fulfill them, viewing this as a test of his juvenile love and devotion. Unable to find certain items in the teeming warehouse, Chep is forced to wander out into the city dressed in a Tor Johnson mask (a nod to all you Ed Wood fans out there) and steal them. So how far will Chep go to find items such as Fran's much needed “severed human finger?”
Considering some of the props in the warehouse are beginning to take on human form and talk to our introverted hero, it's a good bet that his grasp on reality is beginning to slip. Although the film is shot on digital video, Woodley manages to come up with some impressive stop-motion animation. Dolls, chairs, lamps, chess pieces: All attach themselves to one another, building bizarre, Frankenstein constructions that dole out dubious advice to the reality-addled Chep.
Surprisingly, the film never fully surrenders to its foreboding atmosphere. (The fact that Woodley is David Cronenberg's nephew might be cause for alarm among some folks.) Skewed as it is, Rhinoceros Eyes is surprisingly sweet-natured. Ultimately, Chep's just a confused introvert who needs to open his eyes to the world around him (like, for example, that cute nerd girl who operates the ticket booth at the revival theater). Generating sympathy for a near-silent, hallucination-prone idiot savant like Chep isn't the easiest task in the world, but Woodley pulls it off.
The biggest drawback to Rhinoceros Eyes is that it's designed, from start to finish, to be a cult film. That's a tough category to will yourself into. One of the main definitions of “cult film” is a certain aloofness, an unwillingness to commit to any preconceived notions. Those who set out, self-consciously, to appeal to hip indie audiences usually wind up failing miserably. Woodley does rely a bit too much on those who have come before him. Slim on plot and heavy on hand-me-down atmosphere, the film cops a good deal of its style from Richard Kelly's blackly comic cult item Donnie Darko (not to mention the aforementioned work of Burton and the Quays).
Only the most diehard of filmic fanboys will get a majority of the cinematic jokes on display here. I mean, how many of you actually know who Tor Johnson is? Still, Woodley has got skills. For a first-time filmmaker, he's crafted an arty and amusing little set piece that should stimulate the imaginations of odd film lovers (meaning lovers of odd film and film lovers who are, in fact, odd).