Reviewed at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival
There was a bit of a stampede for the exits around the 30-minute mark at the press screening of Beyond the Black Rainbow; that's apparently the universally accepted minimum viewing time for critics (at least here), and some viewers will certainly make for the doors before then. You can't really blame them; this is one weird, inert little movie, with infinitely more interest in look and mood than story. But the direction is so unwavering and self-confident, we're drawn in anyway. A good chunk of those who toughed the movie out loathed it anyway. But there's something wonderfully admirable about how utterly uncompromising it is.
Visually, it's a giddy throwback--a kind of sci-fi House of the Devil, paying visual homage to early-80's sci-fi thrillers, what with the gaudy colors, ugly costumes, antiseptic sets, and (most importantly) the synth score. It's set in 1983, at the Aboria Institute, which we're told (via a clever retro-style promo film) is some kind of an institute for the pursuit of happiness. It goes without saying in a movie like this that what they're really up to is quite the opposite.
The film is not highly populated. It is mostly concerned with Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), apparently some kind of therapist, and his primary patient Elena (Eva Allen), who is telekinetic (I think?). They have occasional creepy "sessions"; he skulks around the institute, she waits in her room. The whole thing as a hypnotic, nightmarish quality; it is purposely, sometimes maddeningly, vague and inexplicable.
Director Panos Cosmatos definitely exhibits a Kubrikian influence, with a dash of THX 1138 thrown in; two days after screening it, I'm still unsure if the film takes itself too seriously, or not at all. Some of it verges on goofy--and perhaps spills over, just a bit. Rogers, who has most of the screen time, is something like Gary Cole with a screw loose; he's prone to occasional bouts of overacting, but he has his moments. Some sequences don't work, not really--the long flashback to 1966 ("a simpler time") adopts a gimmicky, blobby black and white (mostly white) look that's hard to make heads or tails of, and the late diversion into campfire horror feels dropped in from another film altogether. But the darkness and unsettling quality of the story is played straight, and effectively.
The leisurely third act will surely cause less-focused viewers' minds to wander (I know mine did) and the climax is, well, kind of anti-climactic. But you know what? I'll bet this is exactly the movie that Cosmatos wanted to make, and bully for him. Half-measures don't get you a movie like Beyond the Black Rainbow. He went all the way with it, and for better or worse, that's commendable. Most audiences will probably dislike it. But there is a certain slither of an audience that it is pitched right at. They know who they are. And they'll seek it out.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.