It must have something to do with all this "health care" talk. Whatever the case, we have been inundated recently with films where medical needs - and the ability/inability to pay for their experimental, new age spiffy scientific breakthroughs - become the basis for a surreal sci-fi cautionary tale. In the installment plan category, we've had both Repo: The Genetic Opera and the new Jude Law actioner Repo Men. Both deal with overdue payments, expensive designer organs, and the home surgical theater of collection. On the slightly more thoughtful, low budget side of things, lies Re-Generation. Originally entitled The Limb Salesman, this 2004 production offered a post-Apocalyptic Canadian wilderness where new body part can be purchased by those in power. As with the other films like it, there are subplots involving love, the lack of human dignity, and the disease of the despotic. Also similar to those other films, it more or less succeeds - that is, when it isn't out to waste our time.
Disgraced Dr. Gabriele Goode leaves the security of his slum boarding house outside the festering future city of Junction to head to the frozen tundra of "The North". He is summoned there by resource baron Abe Fielder, a man lucky enough to be sitting on one of the last viable supplies of potable water in the world. While his son Charles toils away in the underground reservoirs, his daughter Clara dreams of a day when she can once again walk. An airborne virus mutated her legs into hideous stumps, and Goode has had success in creating perfect genetic transplant matches. At first, everything is fine. Fielder, while strange, welcomes the mild mannered medico. But as she soon rediscovers her mobility, Clara begins falling for her surgical savior. This disrupts the Fielder household in a way that threatens to destroy everything the family - and the newfound society - depends on.
Imagine a less verbose Tennessee Williams mixed with a smattering of David Lynch and a whole lot of local Canuck color and you've got a small idea of the potential lying within Re-Generation. As with any micro-budgeted production, writer (and star) Ingrid Veninger and director Anais Granofsky have to do a whole helluva lot with very little indeed - and they do manage to make the most of their found locations and bleak winter setting. The story is not all that original (patient falling for questionable quack physician is as old as the Greek chorus) but it doesn't stop these ladies from launching, head on, into what could best be described as a future shock Southern Gothic. With Abe Fielder as your typical "Big Daddy", son Charles as the put upon, unappreciated child, and a ditzy drawing room elderly whack-job wondering around (in the guise of the matriarchal mumble-mouthed Grandmother) there's enough here to keep the reanimated corpses of Truman Capote and William Faulkner happy.
But it's not all smooth sailing, and it all begins with the casting. While the rest of the company is competent - interesting and engaging without necessarily being effective or powerful - our female lead is unlikeable at best, a complete and utter wash at the very worst. Ms. Veninger essays the role of Clara, and for the most part, she lets her unusual hairdo do most of the heavy dramatic lifting. Looking like a slightly less attractive Andrea Martin, her mass of platinum white dreads defies description...and purpose. It's as if the new-old Victorian ideals, filled with suspenders and tightly buttoned collars, needed something equally elusive to illustrate the upcoming oddness of the years, and a woman resembling an insane member of The Slits won the day. It would be nice if Ms. Veninger could compensate for her unusual fašade with some killer acting. Instead, she plays inert rather well, and that's about it. With a stronger central character, Re-Generation might have been a revelation. As it stands, she makes everyone else around her work three times harder.
And then there is the main narrative thread. Dr. Goode is actually not - he's dying of a defective mechanical heart and addicted to a syrupy drug called Ren that may or may not be the reason why he is now a traveling butcher for hire. Yet his motives seem incomplete and without much true meaning. Sure, he tells a black market limb manufacturer that the Fielder job is just that, but we sense him striving for something more significant, something that is never fully explained. Daddy dearest also has some untapped incestual angst that is hinted at, but barely broached with the kind of directness and determination such a subtext needs. At the end of the day, we want to see Clara out from under his iron fist, and hope that either Charles or the junk-riddled 'gentleman caller' plays hero. When the ending does come, it feels slightly anticlimactic. With so much potential, and so little to realize it with, Re-Generation can't help but feel half-baked. It's still a deceptively spellbinding and often gorgeous film to look at. Buried somewhere deep inside, however, another more epic adventure is just waiting to get out.
Sadly, any ambience or widescreen wonder director Granofsky tries to achieve with the camera is condescend - and more or less destroyed - by the lame 4x3 presentation offered. Yes, full screen may be the way to go for such low budget enterprises, but with the home video format moving slowly toward a total 16x9 dynamic, such 1.33:1 conceits are stupid. And since it really does ruin the compositions, one has to question the whole decision to release this DVD, this way, in the first place.
While he's no Carter Burwell, John Welsman does a good job of channeling his inner Coen co-conspirator with his subtle score, and the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix masters such musical intentions quite well. The dialogue, which is often spoken in soft, hushed tones, is easily understandable, and the entire wintery production has a nice, icy atmosphere to its sonics. Indeed, the audio aspect of this release is its best technical specification.
Aside from a trailer, and an additional collection of sneak previews, there are no other bonus features on this DVD. No commentary. No making-of. No information on the cast, crew, or creative process - and that's a shame. It would be nice to hear Ms. Veninger and Ms. Granofsky defend their vision, as well as discuss some of the corners cut to get their ideas on the big screen. Sadly, we don't get the opportunity.
It's a mixed bag then for Re-Generation. Most of the movie is good - not great, or genre redefining, but well-intentioned and efficiently executed. Some of the substance, however, does suffer from poor preparation and follow through. While a Rent It might be a better way to go economically, the artistry and talent involved deserve something closer to a Recommended rating. While the shoddy DVD package does pose a problem, it's not enough to sway the scoring. Indeed, what will sell you on this movie once all the missed opportunities and lost ambitions fade away is the inherent desire to do something slightly different with the same old 'man vs. machine' mythology. Re-Generation may be a nominal effort, but it's one worth championing. What it lacks in scope it more than makes up for in spirit.