Eric Cartman, that big boned bozo from the brilliant animated anarchy known as South Park once declared that all independent film is about "gay cowboys eating pudding". However, there is a better, less humorous way to turn outsider cinema into a generally applicable archetype - call it 'the plain overpowered by pretension'. Indeed, almost all handmade movies suffer from a sense of self-importance that threatens to smother their understandable intentions. Whether it's the random plot pointing toward incest, abuse and sexual scandal, or the shoe gazing seriousness of personal problems made painfully and consistently public, the Indie movement is built on the back of hubris and his dishonorable siblings, arrogance and vanity. First time filmmaker Pete Red Sky tried to avoid these awful attributes when he crafted his ersatz psychological thriller The White Horse is Dead. Unfortunately, even with some viable visual splendor, his efforts resulted in another dose of derivative pomposity.
Naya and her overprotective mother Giselle live in a rundown, ranch-style home on a large piece of property. As a young child, Naya witnessed her father's suicide, and has struggled to escape her manic maternal parent's controlling personality. After yet another attempt to find work as a model, Naya considers going to college. Talk of leaving only makes Mom mad, and she reminds her daughter over and over again that beauty is the only saleable personal "product" she has to rely on. It's no wonder that the girl seeks solace in her late father's leeches. Dad was a researcher, studying blood chemistry, and used the sinister slugs in his experiments. Naya places the creatures on her naked body, hoping they will suck out the pain and problems from inside her. When ex-con Vince is hired on to be the estate's new groundskeeper, our lonely girl becomes instantly smitten. Naturally, Momma does not approve, and things eventually turn fatal as parent must fight paramour for power over Naya. Only problem is, this wicked witch plays for keeps, and won't give up until The White Horse is Dead...whatever that means.
If a movie is made up of interlocking layers, then The White Horse is Dead, a quasi-effective bit of preposterousness, is missing several keys levels. As a director, Pete Red Sky has a real talent, a burgeoning ability to wrap even the most meaningless drivel in evocative sequences of cinematic vibrancy. Certainly, he relies on tried and true methods of aesthetic expression - slow motion, enigmatic musical backing - to achieve his aims, but the results are still startling to look at and optically rich. He is also a filmmaker who relies on mood, not motivation, to sell his subtext. By the use of interesting framing, controlled compositions, and a welcome restraint in editing, Red Sky reinvents the medium, making it half music video, half window into the wounded souls of his characters. All this means that The White Horse is Dead is a borderline masterwork, right? All Red Sky had to do is carefully manage his narrative and bring the story in with little or no trip ups and people would be positing him as the next great Indie auteur.
Before the celluloid crown is placed on his hallowed head however, it's time for the other substantive shoe to drop. Like the rotten core inside a sweet looking apple, or the bile that rises up out of even the most bewitching beauty, the heart of The White Horse is Dead - read: the screenplay and the storyline - are so horribly conceived and awkwardly executed that a very interesting thought crosses one's mind while watching. As the plot plods along stumbling over itself like a coed after one too many Jell-O shooters, we imagine that, if someone else came along and bought this film, they could erase the dialogue and dream up drama that is 1000 times more effective than what is offered here. What Red Sky has to offer, penned by his own obviously unskilled hand, is a nonsensical bit of disconnected claptrap that hides so many of its important elements in veiled threats, incomplete conversations and interpersonal mysteries that we often feel like gravediggers trying to pry out the important parts. Then, to make matters worse, he tosses away all subtlety and suggestion to offer a third act filled with unspeakable acts of cruelty and destruction.
Or does he. Indeed, one of the chief complaints about The White Horse is Dead is that Red Sky never fully convinces us that what we are seeing exists in a plain of complete reality. In truth, the characters all seem to live in the pseudo-surreal Republic of Bohemia where money is omnipresent, time sometimes literally stands still, and every meaningful moment is captured in the glow of perfect magic hour lighting. As individuals, the players here suffer from a unique case of human hyper-pretension, speaking in hushed, humbling tones. Since the narrative goes so nutzoid during the floppy finale, there is a real possibility that what we are seeing all exists inside the screwed up head of any one our cast. It could also be some manner of motion picture metaphor for a life lived in flagrant disregard for the formalities of real society. But Red Sky can't give us a clear idea of what is happening. He is too busy building his symbolism (leeches as a natural form of "inner" pain relief, Mom constantly gulping down her prescription "dolls") and amplifying his actor's posturing to bother with such necessary details. Indeed, the performances here are all pitched far too high to allow us to connect. As Vince, Andrew Welsh whispers every single line, while the obviously ethnic Irina Stemer (she's Russian) has an accent so thick she is almost incomprehensible. Holding it all together is a relatively decent turn by Resmine Atis as the nutty Naya. She keeps us interested, even as everything around her is slowly dissolving into a puddle of purposeless goo.
The result is the kind of movie that forgets its forward motion and concentrates too heavily on the typical tangents. Truth is, had one of our characters stopped slumbering in their own little dream world and asked a couple of pointed questions ("How old are you, really?" or "Why are you controlling my life"), we might have had a spark of significance. A lot of the "issues" addressed in this film could have easily been dismissed by a few well-chosen words. It's just too bad that Red Sky doesn't have that kind of literate capacity. There are times when The White Horse is Dead speaks volumes without uttering a single word. There are also moments when the occasionally stunning visuals overwhelm and defeat the very purpose of the plot. It is safe to say that, from a purely technical standpoint, Pete Red Sky is a filmmaker of some ability. Hopefully in the future he can hook up with a writer who compliments his cinematic sense. He is clearly unable to handle the duties himself. Call it an erotic thriller or just overbearing and idiotic, but this is the kind of movie that gives the outsider artists an incredibly bad name. The independent realm is often accused of being ostentatious and affected. The White Horse is Dead answers to all of those charges, and contains a few more that will probably be found eventually.
Presented in a 1.33:1 fake widescreen image - meaning the letterboxing here does not translate into a 16x9 anamorphic offering - the visual aspect of The White Horse is Dead is understandably excellent. Lack of a real aspect ratio aside, the movie looks magnificent, moody and sometimes magical in its color correct, detail oriented print. Though it is obviously a digital camcorder production, Red Sky's sense of style, along with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi's brilliant control of light and dark, makes for a very sumptuous, quite stellar optic wonder.
Another fascinating aspect of this film is Christopher Wong's new age meets melancholy melody original score. Presented in a Dolby Digital Stereo set-up that accentuates both the music and the dialogue, we are treated to a mix that makes the most of its limited budget and aural elements. If Pathfinder were smart, they'd offer Wong's work on a separate CD - or better yet, include it as an extra in the packaging. The DVD could really use such a saleable complimentary commodity.
Because the film's ending is so disjointed and unclear, reading that the disc contains an alternative conclusion to the narrative made this movie critic yelp for justified joy. Here, under the guise of a mere added feature, was the potential to finally gain insight into what the director was going for. Sadly, that's not the case. Red Sky does deliver a different finish for his film, but amazingly it's stupider and sloppier than the current closing, making little sense and destroying much of what came before. Once viewed, it is clear why it was removed. Sadly, the rest of the added content is incredibly underwhelming. The trailer is tame, the still gallery rather basic, and the text-based biographies contain little necessary information. While a full length commentary in which Red Sky explains his intentions might have helped this DVD, we'd still have to suffer through the actual dialogue as delivered. Indeed, no supply of supplements could save this mangled motion picture.
Because of its obvious bright outside/dead inside ideals, along with the bitter belief that some film fans might actually UNDERSTAND this movie, a reasonable rating of Rent It is awarded to The White Horse is Dead. Drama this drippy is usually reserved for Young Teen 'Ten Boy Summer' romance novels, or badly staged works by community college professor-playwrights - and still, Pete Red Sky's skill with a camera almost saves it. If you had to base your opinion on the characters alone, their insufferable self-absorption would be enough to drive you away from this pointless interpersonal pabulum. But in a very clear case of sensational style over a complete lack of acknowledgeable substance, the compelling images director Pete Red Sky provides us with offer a stunning, if overall substandard, entertainment experience. Like the nonsensical nature of the title itself (just what does it mean?) The White Horse is Dead defies easy description. It also feigns importance, avoids authenticity and escapes without explaining itself. You can't get more pretentious than that.