Review by Mark Schwab
Yeah, the kid had something. He had that old movie chestnut known as "screen presence". River Phoenix made a strong impression in his brief career, showcasing an unusual masculinity mixed with a genuine tenderness that could touch both genders in such films as Stand by Me and (in an Oscar-nominated performance) Running on Empty. When he died suddenly in 1993 of a drug overdose, fans were shocked and saddened, knowing a promising career was cut off in its prime.
It turned out that Phoenix had been shooting a movie in Utah called Dark Blood for director George Sluizer (The Vanishing) when he died. They were just 11 days from finishing principal photography. It would take 20 years before Sluizer would be able to negotiate all the legal hurdles and put together what he calls his "3-legged stool" - it may be incomplete, but it can still stand and allows River Phoenix to rise from the ashes and onto the screen one last time.
I appreciate that the now 81-year old, wheelchair-bound Sluizer kept his integrity and saw it through as best he could (including literally stealing the negative out of a Paris vault) but unfortunately Dark Blood has too many things working against it to make it little more than a sad coda to a very good actor destined to be forever young.
It goes wrong pretty quickly. Shortly after we are introduced to a Hollywood power couple (Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce) taking a drive through the desert we are treated to the Dutch-accented and borderline-slurring voice of director Sluizer reading directly from the script (scene descriptions and dialogue) itself to fill in a missing gap. This happens about 6 times thoughout the movie. It's bad. Real bad. As in instant cinematic mood killer. It may not be constant throughout the film, but there's enough to make it a contributor to the mess.
When Davis and Pryce's car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, they appear to be rescued by Phoenix (called "Boy" in the credits) living a hermit's existence in the middle of nowhere. However it doesn't take long for our married couple to realize that "Boy" has deep psychological problems and Dark Blood takes a turn into lurid noir territory when he starts keeping them captive.
Or at least it tries to. Again, Sluizer digs himself a lot of holes which the performers keep falling into. Judy Davis is badly miscast trying to play a Hollywood sexpot/flirty wife and the scenes between her and Phoenix which should be simmering with sexual tension have no heat at all. Pryce chews his scenery into dust, overacting his character into total irrelevence.
As for Phoenix? Well....he's ok. He's given a lot of mumbo jumbo dialogue about radiation and Hopi mysticism. It's all pretty much undeliverable so all things considered, he manages it well enough. His face and eyes still hold up so you do pay a bit more attention when he's on screen. He just isn't given any room to create an actual human being.
The whole enterprise is just so....awkward. Like the movie is made up entrirely of first takes by the actors before they had even rehearsed it.
There are a couple of bright spots. Ed Lachman's photography is quite beautiful and Phoenix's homestead shows creative and cinematic production design. There is also a reasonably strong ending where Sluizer finally manages to get all the pieces together with his direction, the performances, the photography and the music. But it is way too little, too late. Unfortunately for River Phoenix, this unforgetable actor fades to black with a very forgetable movie.