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THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
Note: The first part of this review was originally published on November 14, 2002, before the film's theatrical release.
Mental illness is a popular angle for independent films. All you need is an actor actin' crazy to make your point. Tim McCann's Revolution #9, however, takes a more difficult approach, really getting under the skin of a man suffering from schizophrenia. This isn't the trumped-up schizophrenia that Hollywood often confuses with multiple personality disorder but rather the real thing, an all-encompassing disorder that (according to the Schizophrenia Society of Canada) is "characterized by delusions, hallucinations, disturbances in thinking and withdrawal from social activity."
McCann's film is primarily about two people: James Jackson (excellently played by Michael Risley) and Kim Kelly (Adrienne Shelly, also superb). James and Kim are a young, attractive Manhattan couple with a lot going for them. They've been dating for over a year and have recently decided to get married. Right off the bat, however, they aren't portrayed simplistically. In an effective early scene, Kim's father expresses concern over his daughter's engagement. He's both unsure of James' prospects and untrusting of Kim's sense of responsibility. The couple are also shown living in tiny Manhattan studio apartments, an appropriate detail considering the lie of Friends and other fantasy-land city stories.
Soon after the start of the film, however, James starts to lose focus. At first he just seems stressed out but he quickly becomes overwhelmed with paranoia and nervousness. What sets him off? The film doesn't provide any easy answers but James himself blames a vague perfume commercial that he believes was made specifically to send him messages. In fact, he suspects that the commercial is part of a far-reaching conspiracy that includes web advertising and hackers, all geared towards getting inside his head. The film dances with the idea of media oversaturation causing James' condition, but it doesn't settle for an easy target there either. The commercial James suspects doesn't seem subversive when viewed objectively (for example, when he convinces Kim to watch it with him) and Scooter McCrae, the director of the commercial (Spalding Gray, in a perfect supporting role), is portrayed as a benign artist more likely to worry about how his commercial work impacts his serious photography than what mind-bending conspiracies he might be contributing to. The way James' psychosis grows and clouds his ability to stop himself, and the way Kim tries to stick by him even when it's in direct opposition to reason, feels painfully real.
Revolution #9 has a lot of strengths. Risley's performance is really excellent. Looking like a cross between Tom Cruise and Conan O'Brien, Risley manages to balance his character's illness and his humanity. This isn't a TV movie version of schizophrenia with dramatic outbursts and sullen introspection. One excellent example of how far into his character Risley plays is a scene where he sits in on a hearing of whether he can be held in a hospital for two weeks against his will. At first he sits quietly, leading the audience to believe that he is conscious (or conniving) enough to fool the judge into letting him loose. But as the hearing wears on he becomes enraged and demonstrates exactly why he needs to be watched carefully in the first place. Risley doesn't let James become a character played by an actor with an eye on the big picture in this scene or any other. He's totally lost in the moment and in his own mind and he convinces with tragic accuracy.
Shelly (who also served as associate producer) turns what could have been a thankless role into one of tremendous sympathy. She doesn't come off as perfectly patient or mature but rather a real, confused, determined woman. Her little-girl voice is at odds with her strong stance on sticking by her fiancee, but she's also naive as well. It's a subtle, effective performance that deserves attention.
Gray is also terrific in his short role. He perfectly conveys the artiste caught in a commercial world, a conflict itself that hints at McCann's concerns. In one particularly strong scene James and McCrae meet for an interview (McCrae thinks James is interviewing him for an online magazine, James plans to force McCrae to admit to the conspiracy) and McCann finds the opportunity to make keen observations on two forms of delusion. James impatiently tries to get McCrae to confess while McCrae fools himself into still believing that James is interested in his observations on life and art long after it should be clear that James is losing it. Both actors help make this scene totally riveting.
Another aspect of the film is its even-handed treatment of the medical community. Ultimately it's the bureaucracy of modern medicine that fails James but no one person is shown as the villain. James' doctors and therapists are well-meaning if sometimes naive and the appointed lawyer who tries to get him released from the hospital - something that is definitely not in his best interest - is played as dispassionate, a woman only doing her job. Even the insurance auditor, the man who ultimately causes James to be released, is just a cog in the machine, an anonymous guy sitting in an office, wearing a headset. It's not a question of sinister people but rather a system that doesn't care.
Revolution #9 features fine performances but ultimately it's McCann's film. There is a strong directorial stamp on every frame of this stylish film that is able to visualize schizophrenia but is still confident enough to step back and look at the sick character with a sane eye. McCann's previous film, Desolation Angels was an emotionally ambitious but seriously flawed film that kept the audience at arm's length with over-the-top histrionics and ugly cinematography. Revolution #9 is a major step forward. It's a film that serious audiences should find nearly hypnotizing, from the innocuous opening to the dark, bravely ambiguous ending.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer here is pretty nice. There is noticeable grain on the image (which makes sense, given the film's origins on Super-16mm) and compression artifacts are sometimes visible in darker settings. Also, there is occasional damage and dirt on the print throughout. On the plus side, the picture is sharp and clear. McCann's visuals range from rushed and cheap to dense and complex and the transfer makes the latter look engaging without making the former worse than it is.
The 5.1 audio is clear and understandable. The pulsing score is effective and, even though this isn't a mix to shake the rafters, a nice job was done with a presumably limited budget. McCann does a lot with simple audio tools and creates a surprisingly complex style for his film, and the disc accurately reflects that.
The main extra is an audio commentary featuring director McCann and stars Risley and Shelley. Although the track is edited in a weirdly disruptive way, with the participants cutting each other off at times (it's not easy to tell if they were together in the recording studio or not) it has some interesting spots. It comes alive when the director and his stars discuss schizophrenia and the research they did into the illness before making the film. It's less interesting when they discuss the process of making the film itself.
The disc also includes two short films by McCann: Naughty Eyes, a highly-stylized, very short and rather pointless piece, and Ivoryland, a music video for Kathy Good, who also appears in the main feature.
The disc also includes a trailer and filmographies.
An intelligent, complex film that tackles a serious subject in a unique way, Revolution #9 deserves more of an audience on DVD than it received in theaters. It's easy to get caught up in the inner turmoil of the characters thanks to thoughtful writing, soulful performances and strong direction.