River Phoenix's Last Film to Make U.S. Debut at Miami International Film Festival

River Phoenix, elder brother of Joaquin and tinseltown legend, died on a Hollywood sidewalk 20 years ago. But in March, he'll rise again when his last on-screen appearance makes its North American debut at the Miami International Film Festival (MIFF).

Dark Blood, also starring Jonathan Pryce and Judy Davis, is hitting screens a full two decades after its creation. For anyone raised in the '80s or '90s, Phoenix's mesmerizing on-screen charisma and brooding good looks are hard to forget, as is his tragic death at age 23. So we can assume his last moments on film are bound to be just as memorable.

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"The film itself is different, it's got a bit of a mystical quality to it that adds something to the mystique. I think that it's a bit of an allegorical story, and I think it's not quite a conventional commercial film," says Jaie Laplante, executive director of MIFF.

The film, 80 percent completed at the time of River's death, was saved from near destruction by director George Sluizer in 1999. He heard that the footage was about to be burned to save space and managed to swoop in and recover it. Afterward, it sat for more than 10 years before being completed, and finally premiered last year in Sluizer's homeland of the Netherlands.

For some younger viewers, Dark Blood may be their first introduction to the ill-fated star. The plot revolves around a Hollywood couple (Pryce and Davis) traveling through the desert. They break down and are forced to find shelter in Boy's (Phoenix) shack. Boy's wife died of leukemia due to nuclear testing, and the result is an unstable and isolated man who takes his guests prisoner.

"There are a lot of things when you're watching Joaquin that bring River to mind. Joaquin has a harder edge, River had a softer persona, but I think River lives on in his brother and his brother is also a great artist," Laplante adds. "I think it will be fascinating for people of a younger generation who didn't get to know River to see elements of Joaquin in him. When we watch Joaquin we think of River, but for people of younger generation it'll be the opposite. It's very resonant and moving."

MIFF leaders expressed their interest in the film to Sluizer early on, and eventually he chose Miami as his city of debut for the eagerly-anticipated flick.

"It could be that we were so persistent and showed our interest so early. It's a big year -- it's our 30th anniversary -- so we have that much more media attention, and it's that much more of a special year," Laplante said. "I think that he recognized the value of Miami as an international stop on the festival circuit, so we're very pleased that he's coming to Miami to present the film."

Because this year marks MIFF's 30th anniversary, there are bound to be other surprises in store. While the full list of programming won't be released until the end of January, they've already announced five films, including Carlos Lechuga's debut feature film, Molasses; Afghani short Buzkashi Boys by Sam French; and The Artist and the Model (El artista y la modela) by acclaimed Spanish director Fernando Trueba.

"We're going to have more films than we've had in the past couple of years, that much more of an international selection for everyone to choose from. We're also adding a couple of new sections and expanding on sections," says Laplante.

But watching River rise from the dead may be the most exciting aspect of all.

MIFF runs March 1 through 30, and the final lineup will be announced in late January. Visit MiamiFilmFestival.com.

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