Vadim Perelman, the director of “The Life Before Her Eyes,” has said in interviews that he wants people to know how the movie ends before they see it. I’m not going to grant his wish — that’s not how I roll — but his attitude is unusual, and not just for his unorthodox beliefs about spoilers. I think if you knew how “The Life Before Her Eyes” ended before you saw it, it would defeat what little point the movie has. The movie is all ABOUT the ending. If you already know it, you might as well skip it.
It’s a gimmicky twist ending (masquerading as a deeply philosophical one), and it’s not even original. In fact, off the top of my head, I can name four other movies from the last five years alone that use the EXACT. SAME. SURPRISE. (I can’t tell you which movies, of course, as that would spoil those films and this one.) Eighty minutes of the film are reasonably watchable, but then you feel that ending sneaking up, and you realize where it’s going, and then sure enough, it goes there, and the whole thing is ruined.
Based on Laura Kasischke’s novel, the story follows two timelines. In one, Diana (Evan Rachel Wood) is a rebellious Connecticut teenager who smokes pot, sleeps around, and generally squanders her bright mind and abundant potential. Her best friend is Maureen (Eva Amurri), an unlikely match, given that Maureen is a religious “good girl” and more plain-looking than the beautiful Diana. Yet they are an inseparable pair, right up to the moment when a fellow student shoots up the school and kills numerous students and teachers.
The other timeline is 15 years later, with Diana (now played by Uma Thurman) still living in the same small town and tormented by guilt, nightmares, and other repercussions of that awful day. She teaches art history at the local college; her husband, Paul (Brett Cullen), is a respected philosophy professor. They have a young daughter, Emma (Gabrielle Brennan), who’s the spitting image of Diana, right down to her rebellious streak (though it’s manifesting itself earlier than Diana’s did). She attends a parochial school and has taken to hiding from the nuns and worrying everyone.
Perelman, working from a screenplay adapted by Emil Stern, cuts back and forth between timelines almost randomly, and even the separate tracks don’t necessarily flow in strict chronological order. At some point prior to the day of the shootings, Diana has a major Event in her life. Many scenes show Teenage Diana being upset — but is she upset about the Event, or has the Event not happened yet? In many cases, it’s impossible to know. Even before the Event, she had plenty of reasons to have angst. My impression is that the Event was supposed to be traumatic for her, but that thread is not developed sufficiently to give the film the weight it wants.
Thurman and Wood, both known for playing strong, empowered female characters, give typically compelling performances here. Both versions of Diana show vulnerability beneath an independent exterior; Wood’s emotional scenes, in particular, left a greater impression on me than I can recall getting from any of her previous roles. The actresses deserve better movies than this — and so does Perelman, probably, having already gotten one terrific film under his belt with “House of Sand and Fog.”
But Thurman, Wood, and Perelman’s talents not enough, of course. It’s tasteless to invoke a Columbine-like tragedy only to use it for a cheap plot twist. (Once you’ve seen the film, you’ll realize it didn’t have to be a school shooting; it could have been ANY life-or-death situation.) And matters of taste aside, the film’s platitude-heavy dialogue — “The heart is the body’s strongest muscle!” — and pseudo-philosophical themes are ridiculous.
C (1 hr., 30 min.; )