"The disorder is order...this is a strange new American dream, a way to improve yourself a few dead limbs at a time."
In 2003, Melody Gilbert's documentary Whole opened the door on a freakishly fascinating subject: physically healthy people with a desire to be amputees. Focusing on "wannabes"--who suffer from what is now called Body Integrity Identity Disorder--the film featured subjects faking disability in their everyday lives, and others who found serenity by engineering the loss of a limb. In Quid Pro Quo, first-time director Carlos Brooks uses that underground culture as the starting point for a memorable story bathed in mystery.
Isaac Knott (Nick Stahl) is a reporter for a New York public radio station. He's been confined to a wheelchair since childhood, paralyzed after surviving a car crash that killed his parents. "Once in a while, wheeling in and out of the curb of people, I'd catch someone looking at me, and I'd see something else in their eye: jealousy." His producer assigns him a story after the station gets an anonymous tip from a caller, who told them about a man who walked into a local hospital and offered a doctor $250,000 to amputate a healthy leg.
Soon, Isaac is introduced to the "pretender" and "wannabe" culture, meeting a group of people with the desire to be paraplegics or amputees. He also comes face to face with his source: Fiona (Very Farmiga), a mysterious woman on a mission: "This is all about understanding you. And then I'll tell you whatever you want...quid pro quo. I want your life, as a paraplegic, in detail." Seems Fiona is a unique case, taking Isaac back to her apartment and strapping on vintage leg braces: "I don't want to be paralyzed...I already am paralyzed. I'm just trapped in a walking person's body."
Friendly Isaac ("I'm easy," he says. "I like anybody who likes me") is instantly fascinated with his new subject, who competes for his attention along with two other muses: a pair of wingtip spectator shoes, and his ex-girlfriend Raine (Aimee Mullins), a fellow PWD (person with disability) who dumped him for an AB (able bodied) person.
The more left unsaid, the better; one of the film's many beauties is its mystique. You're never quite sure what's in store: Brooks has fashioned a story that is part film noir, part love story, part horror anthology tale and part dream-like fantasy, channeling some of that David Lynch/David Cronenberg flair (the film shares similar themes to the latter's Crash from 1996, and also forces slight comparisons to efforts like Boxing Helena and Freaks).
I smiled to myself when Fiona says "we both know how this is going to end"--because I truly had no idea. Well, for the most part: My one (large) criticism with the movie is that one of the twists is instantly obvious, a line of dialogue standing out like a neon sign. It isn't necessary, and spoils a development that could have had more impact if handled more deftly. But ultimately, you realize that isn't what the movie is about anyway, so it's somewhat forgivable.
Quid Pro Quo is dark and winding, but has a center of light with Isaac, played with compassion and palpable hope by Stahl. It's nice to see Isaac played as a man happy with his everyday life, refusing to look at himself as disadvantaged, while Fiona has more layers to her than initially apparent. Farmiga continues to cement her status as one of the strongest actors in the business, emoting from every ounce of her being (those eyes!) as the damaged yet determined femme fatale (when Fiona says "What's normal? Normal's a setting on a washing machine," you get the sense it also applies to Farmiga's philosophy for picking roles). Both talents have been under the A-list radar in Hollywood, but both are frequently brilliant. Despite the film's subject matter, it is ultimately a simple story that hinges on these two roles, and both Stahl and Farmiga make it work perfectly.
While it doesn't end up being what you probably expect, Quid Pro Quo leaves you rethinking its intent--and offers up a surprising amount of food for thought on issues of identity, love, loss and guilt. At just 75 minutes, it probably could have done a lot more, and many fascinating issues (including the dynamic between Isaac and his ex, as well as a deeper exploration of the B.I.I.D. condition) are left unexplored. But as it stands, it's still a beautiful story with gorgeous production design and cinematography, including some effective scenes that take us back to Isaac's accident.
My recommendation is to pop in Quid Pro Quo without any expectations or preconceived ideas...just follow its emotionally powerful path. Those of you seeking a thrilling mystery will probably be disappointed; despite hinting at those intentions, the film becomes an entirely different creature, one that is still captivating.
Presented in an anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen transfer shot in digital video, Quid Pro Quo looks beautiful. It's frequently (and intentionally) dark, but rich when it wants to be, and frequently detailed. In an interview on IFC.com, Brooks explained: "We did some things that, to my mind, no one's ever consciously done before. I shot on a Sony 900 camera, and we used the 950 for a few scenes where it was a tight space. My production designer, Roshelle Berliner, and the [director of photography] Michael McDonough, and I experimented with shiny metallic surfaces to trick the video lens into thinking it's film. I don't know why this works, but it does. It tricks the chip in the video camera into softening those hard video lines and edges. If you walked on the set, you would think it's the strangest looking place because Isaac's apartment was full of wallpaper with metallic inlays. But on video, it looks like film. It gives it this Sidney Lumet-circa-The Verdict look, and that's what I wanted." .
You can select a 5.1 or 2.0 track, another strong effort even though you don't get many dynamic effects. The dialogue may seem slightly low in some spots, but overall it's solid. Subtitles are available in Spanish only.
Up first is audition footage (presented in lower quality, full-frame video) of Vera Farmiga (5:42) and Nick Stahl (4:48) reading scenes. That's followed by the most intriguing extra, 10 minutes of footage from the 2002 documentary Whole, which will whet your appetite to see the entire thing (available for order here). You get a brief glimpse at some of the 55-minute film's subjects, including a man who shot himself to get a leg amputated (I, for one, would be fascinated to hear how it all gets paid for), and another who straps one of his legs up and walks around on crutches. Another man notes he doesn't feel incomplete: "It's more a matter of feeling my body doesn't entirely belong to me."
Also included are seven deleted scenes (10:02, in non-anamorphic widescreen). The most interesting clips include more of the subplot between Raine, her current boyfriend Scott (Dylan Bruno) and Isaac, including some scenes that would have been powerful inclusions--especially the last one, which appears to be an alternate final scene. Storyboards, a tulip montage (featuring the beautiful images seen in Isaac's back story) and trailers round out the package.
Part film noir, part love story, part dream-like fantasy, Quid Pro Quo is bathed in a mysterious beauty. Even though one twist is far too obvious, the film does a good job of keeping you guessing about its intent--and exactly what category it fits into. Those looking for an intense thriller--or an in-depth exploration of the underground wannabe-amputee culture--will be disappointed. Those elements are just a small part of the bigger story, which I still found to be a fascinating, thought-provoking trip led by two outstanding performances. Recommended.