What I love about reading movie reviews is the often tangled, expressively dissimilar approaches people take to inevitably arrive at the same place; in this case, the place is a first feature film and the emotional currency is between two people with lives that haven’t quite turned out the way they planned. In writer/director Finn Taylor’s film debut, Dream With The fishes, we meet Terry (David Arquette) and Nick (Brad Hunt), the first man preparing to end his life and the other man, a small change stick-up artist with a health condition. What starts out as a character film quickly turns into a road movie and subsequently a buddy picture as the two hapless characters embark on a journey with similar motives – namely living and dying and coming to terms with the mess they’ve made along the way. But just when you think you have things figured out, we learn that both men have secrets and with those secrets come baggage. Before they reach the end of the road they are going to have to open that baggage and that is what is really at the heart of this story. If you’re not into character films you might find Fishes awkward at times and almost entirely devoid of plot; the only thing resembling plot here is the epic road trip that ensues and an ending that might seem too contrived for its own sake. I for one am content to get lost in such a film as long as the result is a sense of resolution coupled with a sense of arriving someplace different then from where we started.
Dream With The Fishes isn’t going to break new ground as character films go, or even stretch beyond the boundaries of the road movie meets the buddy movie – not, for instance, as eloquently or with the cinematic pizzazz as Thelma & Louise or Thunderbolt & Lightfoot – but what it does achieve is a revelation of the nuance of people who’ve spent their whole life avoiding one another only to be forced, through circumstance, to find meaning in those collisions.
I like the supporting characters in this film, well cast with their own dimensions and peculiarities. Nick’s father, Joe is every bit the perplexed and abusive personality turned inside out we have probably all known at one time or another; convincingly performed by J.E. Freeman. When father and son meet again after what feels like a much-needed time apart, their idea of facing their inherent dislike for one another is to slam shoulders and then knuckles like cavemen warring over fresh kill. It’s the timeless dichotomy between opposing forces, between the creator and his creation – which one will ultimately destroy the other when forced to confront their competitive nature. You get the idea right away that Nick didn’t so much leave home as he was most likely thrown out. Bronx native and memorable counter-punch opposite Robert Di Nero in Raging Bull, Cathy Moriarty plays Nick’s Aunt Elise, a stripper in the not so distant past with plenty of wind to move about but hardly anything that might serve to rectify her own fading world. Kathryn Erbe chimes in from time to time as Liz, the girlfriend with good intentions who loses out to an obsession with tattoos and opinions – though as Roger Ebert writes in his review, “beneath [Liz’s] fearsome surface we begin to sense shadows and softness”. I like the idea Roger is exploring here, the kind of attention to opposing emotional charges that make an otherwise standard character-play really dig into believable human complexity.
Unlike others, I liked the stylistic approach to the look of Fishes. Roger Ebert characterizes the films look as a distraction, as a freshman approach that other directors have tried and failed to use convincingly. What I think Taylor wanted to do was get inside the heads of his characters, one would-be suicidal peeping Tom, the other a befuddled but no less charismatic thief, and in so doing open the way for a journey that will straddle the line between reality and the reality we make inside our heads. I wasn’t any more distracted by the look of Fishes then I was, say with other films that relied heavily upon a manipulated pallet for their film – Saving Private Ryan, The Matrix films, and Three Kings. It is worth mentioning that the very look achieved in the Three Kings was completely created using the Red Giant software, Magic Bullet – a selling point that has made the software and the company a hot commodity amongst filmmakers interested in using visual style as an additional dimension in their storytelling.
Dream With the Fishes reminds me of the saying, life isn’t about what happens when you get to the end, it’s about the road you took and the decisions you made along the way. If that is any indication as to why one should stop, frequently, to smell the flowers or perhaps intervene when you happen upon a man about to jump off a bridge, then the next time you are hobbling about the video store looking for something to rent, choose Dream With The Fishes and see what happens along the way.