Winona Ryder hasn't made a film for some time. She's been in Disneyland playing a woodland creature (I made that up.) In Girl, Interrupted, she plays Susanna Kaysen, an arty American teenager suffering from non-specific depression in 1960s America.
Kaysen spends a year in a mental hospital where she meets a group of young women, led by the Oscar-nominated Angelina Jolie as a sociopath called Lisa. The hospital seems nice, although when Susanna first arrives, we see Whoopi Goldberg standing outside dressed as a benevolent nurse in a poncho (Run, Susanna! Run!)
Susanna doesn't quite know what to make of things at first, and then she hates it, hates it, hates it, and spends her time curled on the bed, clutching her journal and haggling with her regrets. After a while she and Lisa become best friends, and Winona gets to do her usual, swinging those eyes on us in a way that always seems to whisper two things: I cannot do without shelter, and Love me, and I'll read you Milan Kundera all night. You see, Winona's supposed intelligence goes before her. Everybody knows that her godfather was Timothy Leary and that she studied F. Scott Fitzgerald in her pram.
In some way it's perfect for her literate persona that this film is set in the 1960s because, with her post-beatnik haircut and chilly April skin (you always see her mentioned in Favourite Actress columns by men who claim to find Audrey Hepburn more attractive than Brigitte Bardot), she strikes you as precisely the kind of girl who would cry angry tears at all the assassinations and the H-bomb and the thought of Nixon lying like that. On the other hand, she also looks like she might keel over if you puffed a bit of pot her way - she's hardly one for bell-bottoms and the Grateful Dead. The director leaves that to Jolie, who is twice the performer Ryder is, and has an atmosphere of addled briskness, of to-the-bone anarchy, like no other young actress in Hollywood.
Jolie (Jon Voight's daughter - they have matching mouths) is also very beautiful but directors keep putting her in confusing wigs to stop her looking so terrific. Sometimes she speaks in a too-low voice, needlessly persuading us that she is capable of solemnity, but when she's not over-compensating for her appearance, Jolie acts everybody off the screen. This is quite a sight. Ryder uses the screen like some kind of shady yard - not trying very hard, just using her eyes like two noontide hours and hoping for the best - but Jolie experiments, fully participates, is deft, accurate.
And yet, the film is entirely disposable. Watching a group of teenagers "tongue their meds" (which does not mean doing something rude with a junior doctor) and sobbing out of windows is boring. And anyway, none of these young women (with the exception of one, a victim of sexual abuse, who only ever eats chicken) seems in too much trouble. There just isn't enough in the script to indicate that Lisa couldn't cope perfectly well with a spending spree or a week on the beach or a bout of insomnia or a death in the family. She can take the dirt, the low-down. She has a coherent personality (at worst, she might go to bed with your husband.) As for Ryder's Susanna - you can't imagine a girl more tedious, more easily fixed. Diagnosis: she has a catatonic crush on herself.
Unlike the source book (a best-selling memoir of the same title) the film would have you believe that mental illness is a sweetly melancholic picnic. This hospital is really just a sorority house, this supposed purgatory a utopia. It's a fun place to be. Better than fun - everybody listens to you and finds you fascinating. It's a place where everything matters. For a film about people leading a posthumous kind of existence, people turned inside out, it's too glossy, too bloodless, too logical. There's no mist, no smudge, no frozen demons, no split-level thinking, no danger and demands, no fallout, no sick jokes, no catastrophic forces, no real, steady self-dislike. Girl, Interrupted is simply a photo-opportunity for Ryder. Bambi is back.
Bleeder is a Danish film about a group of men who hang around a comprehensively-stocked video shop, watch movies, and scrap and chat. This is a stilted, dreary film - and pretty derivative. Nicolas Winding Refn, its young director, might have turned down the opportunity to go to film school, but he's a film student through and through. His references to Scorsese (a Mean Streets opening) Tarantino (arguments over whether Charles Bronson is better than Franco Nero) and Lindsay Anderson (gun-caressing straight from If...) are far too determined, and there were verbal references to over 40 other directors, before I lost count. I wonder if Refn was grinning when he put Tarkovsky and Frank Capra in the bargain bucket, and Fellini and John Woo on the same shelf in his video store. I wouldn't bet on it.
Third World Cop, Jamaica's most successful film ever, is shot entirely on digital camera and is as low-budget as can be endured. Its opening shots of long red nails digging appreciatively into the back of the maverick cop hero sets up its sexual agenda clearly enough - this is thoroughly old-school Blax-ploitation. Except there's more. The film does look at Jamaica's most urgent problem - crisis-level body counts when the police are wielding the guns.
Also shot on digital, The Last Broadcast gets a small release thanks to the success of The Blair Witch Project. Made in 1998, it also charts the misfortunes of a group of film-makers lost in the woods. TLB is everything BWP managed not to be, thanks, largely, to the genius editing of the latter. In comparison, TLB is amateur. In all the wrong ways.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies