SXSW 2014: Before I Disappear
Review by Daniel Rester
Before I Disappear announces a fresh, exciting filmmaking voice in Shawn Christensen. The film is based on Christensen’s 2012 Oscar-winning short film Curfew, with him returning as the writer, director, and star of the piece (as well as co-producer and co-editor). This is the kind of film that I love to celebrate. It’s that one among the many that stands out and makes viewing all of the generic films worth it. This is one of those rare films that will give many critics, like myself, that “cinematic high” that they search for on a regular basis but only occasionally find.
Disappear tells the story of Richie (Christensen), a New Yorker who has given up hope and becomes suicidal for various reasons. After attempting to kill himself, Richie receives a phone call from his estranged sister, Maggie (Emmy Rosum). Maggie asks him to watch her eleven-year old daughter, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek), for a few hours because she can’t go get her for certain reasons.
This leads Richie and Sophia to go on a nightly adventure in the city, though the two hardly know each other. Also, they are very different from one another. Richie is more of a lost soul who doesn’t care about much anymore, while Sophia is a determined and intelligent schoolgirl who likes to stick to plans.
The two end up in a number of places throughout the night, and we are introduced to different characters as well. Two of them are Gideon (Paul Wesley) and Bill (Ron Perlman), who are drug pushers and have close connections to Richie. Soon the varied situations of Maggie, Gideon, and Bill start to take an effect on Richie as he starts to bond with his niece.
It may sound like I gave a bit away in that description of the film, but I didn’t. Disappear is full of unexpected story and character elements, ranging from the odd to the hilarious to the poignant. It also has the visual and sound style to match, allowing both the content and form to burst from the screen. This film is alive.
Christensen blends a story of redemption, loneliness, and love with eccentric but believable characters. Each character, no matter how small, pops from the screen and seems relevant. The central five characters all have flaws and depth as well, allowing us to care for each of them in different ways – though some of them less likeable than others. What’s more, the dialogue is often colorful and has a perfect flow. Such elements allow for a wonderful, unique script.
The actors are all exceptional as well and make every relationship seem authentic. Christensen is dynamite as the weird, sad character of Richie; the character reminded me a bit of Renton in Trainspotting (1996) at times. Ptacek is a gem, holding her own against the adult actors and bringing much of the heart to the film. She also never becomes “an annoying child character,” but rather a fully developed character that truly has significance. The chemistry between these two is just remarkable. Rosum is terrific here too, pulling off some dramatics that impress. And Wesley and Perlman are entertaining to watch as the seedy types, adding weight to characters that could have easily been basic.
Christensen not only knows how to write well and direct actors skillfully, but he also knows how to make a film look and sound beautiful. Some could say that Christensen does with New York here what Nicolas Winding Refn did with Los Angeles in Drive (2011). Every frame of Disappear has a pulse about it, whether it be in presenting a smooth tracking shot through a bowling alley or capturing the bizarre costumes of a hallway party. Simply put, the cinematography, editing, lighting, and production design all blend to make intoxicating images. But what is even better is that many of these images are detailed in a subtle way, never overcrowding the story.
As for the sound design, this film provides eargasms. Some of the mixing provides for haunting noises to stir with soft score elements. And then the songs on the soundtrack even further everything, giving us everything from classical tunes to electro pop to David Bowie to The Animals. Christensen, like such filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino and Danny Boyle, knows how to make the soundtrack a character in itself.
Disappear feels a little long at times and seems to have a couple of continuity errors, but the film smashes such minimal faults with its zippy, atmospheric, and emotional portrait of a lost soul finding his way. I really hope this isn’t a one-hit wonder feature film from Christensen, as this guy has extreme skills and deserves to develop them even further. One can only hope that Disappear finds the audience which it deserves, though it may be tough since it is a smaller film. However, I believe it will as it already won the audience prize for the narrative feature category at SXSW this year. It likely deserves the other accolades that may come its way.
Score: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: A)
Runtime: 1 hour and 33 minutes.
U.S. Release Date: N/A.