Back when the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was at full boil, I read an article in which Francis Ford Coppola was quoted as saying that, while he hadn’t seen the film yet, he intended to because the movie was made from the gut. Whether Coppola was given space in the article to expand on this, or if I was simply picking up on his obvious implication, I no longer remember. The gist was that a film made from a personal and artistic need on the part of the director was a rare enough thing that when one came along it shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.
To put this in the perspective of Coppola’s own career, this would have been in 2004, seven years after adapting John Grisham’s The Rainmaker (1997) and three years before Youth Without Youth, a film Coppola spent decades struggling to make (this while also trying to get his long-rumored Megalopolis off the ground), and battling against the concept of what Hollywood would and would not let him do. In the end, Coppola basically said, “Screw this noise,” and funded and distributed Youth Without Youth himself. So in 2004, Coppola knew better than most about the rarity of personal vision in filmmaking.
All of which brings me to Twixt. And, if these fell under the purview of our project here, Youth Without Youth and 2009’s Tetro as well, these three films comprising a trilogy of sorts as Coppola has struck off on his own, but they don’t, so: Twixt. If personal, from-the-gut films are rare in general, they’re almost to the point of vanishing in the world of modern American horror films, a genre rife with retreads and inside jokes. If “personal” enters the equation at all it often takes the form of, “This is what watching horror movies in the ‘80s felt like.”
But Twixt is a distinctly personal horror film. Since hitting festivals, it has been met with the kind of dismissive sneering Coppola probably hasn’t experienced since the impersonal Robin Williams vehicle, Jack. It’s personal in a way usually reserved for traditional dramas, taking as its core--amidst a great deal of formal and tonal strangeness--a father grieving the death of a lost child under circumstances almost exactly like those that took the life of Gian-Carlo Coppola, Francis’s own son, back in 1986.
This being the first post of four, it falls on me to offer something in the way of a synopsis. Twixt is the story of Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer), a writer of supernatural thrillers. Whatever heights he’d once reached, he’s since fallen well below them. When we meet Baltimore, he’s doing a book-signing for his new novel in the small town of Swann Valley, only he’s not signing them in a bookstore but the town’s hardware store--the only place in town that sells books. Sarcastic and embittered, but not aggressively so, Baltimore is a drunk who’s frankly done with these witchcraft thrillers he’s been grinding out, so much so that when the eccentric local sheriff, Bobby LaGrange (Bruce Dern), approaches him with the idea of collaborating on a novel about a series of local murders, Baltimore doesn’t brush him off. Swan Valley is strange enough to interest him, what with the seven-faced bell tower reading seven different times, and the fact that, back in the mid-1800s, Edgar Allan Poe once stayed in a nearby hotel. Add to this a series of strange dreams featuring Poe (Ben Chaplin) and an ethereal but sad young girl named Virginia (Elle Fanning), plus newspaper clippings detailing the murders of several children in the 1950s, and Baltimore figures he has nothing to lose by sticking around.
Amongst all this, however, the most important element is the death of Baltimore’s daughter, Vicky (Fiona Medaris), and his withering marriage to Denise (Joanne Whalley). But Vicky is gone now. Why she’s gone, and how, is revealed gradually, as the plot unfolds, finally revealing Twixt as something like a belated act of artistic mourning.
Coppola’s son Gian-Carlo died in a boating accident 27 years ago when his speedboat passed between two other boats connected by a towline. Gian-Carlo, 22, was struck across the neck by the towline and killed. It’s revealed in Twixt that Vicky died in exactly the same way. There are differences, apart from gender, such as the fact that Vicky is much younger than Gian-Carlo. Plus, a good deal of Baltimore’s guilt stems from being drunk at the time of the accident. I’m not aware of Coppola being in a similar state when his son died, but it strikes me as fairly clear that Baltimore’s inebriation is just a simplified, boiled-down version of the guilt, rational or not, any parent would feel after such a tragedy. This is the base on which Coppola builds his strange horror story.
The film as a whole is a bizarre mix of comedy (not always successful) and atmospheric horror. The final shape it takes is that of one of your more awkward land birds--an ostrich, let’s say. Or not even a land bird, as this would ignore the fact that Twixt, a film I’m happy to defend, is more than capable of taking flight, making it more like a flamingo, after one of the characters in the movie. For instance, there’s a great deal of humor centering around Baltimore’s interaction with this eccentric small town, but also including odd comic tangents, like the one that finds Baltimore talking to himself in the voices of Marlon Brando and a gay basketball player.
The humor can sit uneasily by the horror precisely because that horror is so personal. When you know how Gian-Carlo died, and then take note of how Coppola focuses the horror violence in Twixt on various kinds of neck wounds, it’s almost impossible not to shudder. Yet the jokes keep rolling along. Until they don’t, of course, but then they start up again. Twixt invites ignorant psychoanalysis, though I’m going to avoid it as best I can. It would be a mistake to try and “figure out” what exactly Coppola was going through as he conceived and made this film. Twixt is, stylistically and emotionally, an unrealistic yet lifelike mess, which is a type of mess that can be genuinely thrilling.
My take is that Twixt is much more organically a Francis Ford Coppola film than even his masterpieces from the 70s (without, obviously, being as good)--like if you were to smoosh One From the Heart and Bram Stoker’s Dracula into one story. Until recently, my experience with Coppola’s work was mostly limited to The Godfather through Apocalypse Now, that experience only slightly filled out by films like Dracula and The Rainmaker. But a recent viewing of One From the Heart (and talk about underrated), Rumble Fish, and a few others, but One From the Heart in particular, has helped lock Coppola, the naturally experimental filmmaker, into place. On second viewing, Twixt strikes me as personal not just for the obvious reasons, but on an aesthetic level. His use of color, the intentional artificiality of Flamingo’s (Alden Ehrenreich) late-film motorcycle jump, the discombobulating tonal shifts, the broad humor and despair, all recall the gentler, career-derailing boldness of One From the Heart. At the same time, all of those elements, particularly the artificiality, with the addition of dread and death and geysers of blood, bring Coppola’s Dracula into the mix. Twixt, in short, is more in line with Coppola’s specific visual and storytelling imagination than any of the films that have made him a legend.
But what do you think, Keith? Am I overstating the rarity of this kind of personal horror film? What do you make of its aesthetic wonkiness? I understand those festival screenings (and especially the Comic-Con experiment) were quite odd, so what do you think of its negative critical response so far, and how does it fit into Coppola’s career?