Like the phoenix of his name, River has risen again, exhumed for one last movie. The James Dean of Generation X, actor River Phoenix died in 1993 at age 23 from a drug overdose. Now, 20 years later, the movie he was shooting at the time of his passing, Dark Blood, has seen its first light of day, thanks to a painstaking reconstruction from its original Dutch director, George Sluizer (The Vanishing). It premiered last month in Berlin and will enjoy its North American premiere at the Miami International Film Festival this Wednesday.
In this final version, in which Sluizer provides narration and still photographs to compensate for a handful of unshot or destroyed scenes, Dark Blood feels like a lost masterpiece, a dusty and desolate psychodrama that's equal parts Voyage to Italy, Days of Heaven, and Straw Dogs.
Jonathan Pryce and Judy Davis play Harry and Buffy, a Hollywood power couple en route to a potential acting job somewhere in the American Southwest. It's also something of a second honeymoon, though their passion has ossified. When their car breaks down in the desert, they find lodging with the only inhabitant around -- Phoenix's character, who goes by the name Boy. He lives in a pueblo on Native American ground, feasts on the varmints he shoots, and stocks a cavern he's prepped for an apocalypse. Boy takes a liking to Buffy, who seems to be returning his flirtations, creating, for Harry and the viewer, a slow and claustrophobic burn in a setting that couldn't be more wide open. Primitive and paranoid, Phoenix portrays a complex mix of antagonism and victimhood, with a nefarious gleam in his eyes and a brooding sensuality that few actors have captured since -- save perhaps his younger brother, Joaquin.
"You think [Boy] is sweet, and then you think what a bastard, and that he's gentle, and that he's mad," Sluizer says from his home in the Netherlands. "It's a rather ambiguous, strange character, who, like an angry hippie, goes and separates himself from the normal world. How River interpreted what I told him, I would say it's his secret, because sometimes I was slightly amazed at reactions he gave in the film."
When Phoenix died from a drug overdose outside a West Hollywood nightclub three weeks before interior shots were to be completed, Sluizer and his crew were shocked. "During the shoot, I never thought of the word drugs ever, though I knew he had used them. It was a tragedy, and extremely sad, because he was a very liked person in our crew."
For Sluizer, now 80, it took his own brush with death to finally revisit the project. He suffered a brain aneurysm in 2007, underwent three operations, and convalesced for nearly a year. He emerged with a newfound vigor to complete Dark Blood before his death, which he admits could happen anytime.
"I guess somebody wanted me to finish Dark Blood," he says.