Writer-director Shawn Christensen’s 2012 Oscar-winning short Curfew was a striking miniature. The filmmaker starred as a drug-addled layabout whose latest suicide attempt was interrupted by a phone call from his estranged sister, pressing him into emergency babysitting duty for his precocious niece (Dora The Explorer herself, Fatima Ptacek). Granted, it trafficked in that all-too-familiar trope of the grouchy anti-social loser dude warming up to an outsider kid and, speaking as someone who bailed on St. Vincent after half an hour, I’m not sure we ever really need to see this story again. But Curfew had a real visual swagger and mysterious flights of fancy — like an impromptu dance number at a bowling alley – that made the secondhand material feel exciting and new. In my review at the time, I said I’d like to see it expanded into a feature.
Be careful what you wish for.
Before I Disappear takes Curfew’s fleet 19 minutes and adds another hour and change of disjointed and extraneous nonsense. Attempting to contextualize the protagonist’s despair, we’re saddled with a convoluted story in which this humble janitor at a scuzzy downtown rock club happens upon a beautiful young girl dead with a needle in her arm in a grimy bathroom stall. The joint’s Mephistophelean boss (Ron Perlman) takes a cue from Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle” and makes the body disappear.
Meanwhile, over at that bowling alley I mentioned before, the weirdly well-connected and incongruously powerful proprietor (Paul Wesley) is wondering where his girlfriend went after they had a fight last night. Christenen’s Richie is torn between these two underworld figures, and what any of this has to do with his niece or the still-effective scenes reproduced from Curfew I have no idea.
It does, however, have style to burn. Christensen and cinematographer Daniel Katz got their Scorsese-is-God bonafides down pat and pack the film with gorgeous slow-motion dolly shots of characters smoking in red-lit bars while well-chosen jukebox tunes blare on the soundtrack. There’s a visually stunning costume party sequence set to David Bowie’s “Five Years” that’s thrilling to watch and contributes nothing whatsoever to the story.
As an actor, Christensen has a scruffy Paul Le Mat quality and his chemistry with Dora… I mean, Ptacek… is pretty killer, but she’s not in the movie nearly as much as one might hope. The screenplay plays a weird game of hide-and-seek withholding information about the whereabouts of her mom (Emmy Rossum), building up to a big reveal that’s almost immediately tossed aside. Perhaps Before I Disappear was written to mimic the main character’ doped-out dissociative state, but it feels more like a collection of disconnected set-pieces than a cohesive film of its own.
In this case, less was more.