Director: George Sluizer
Writer: Jim Barton
Stars: River Phoenix, Jonathan Pryce, and Judy Davis
Harry Fisher (Jonathan Pryce) is a has-been actor traveling with his wife, Buffy (Judy Davis), across the desert in his Rolls Royce when it breaks down. Luckily they are able to get towed to a local mechanic where he does a band-aid fix to get the car running without the proper part. Against the advice of the mechanic, Harry insists on taking his chances crossing the desert. Again the car breaks down and he and his wife are forced to spend the night in the car. Unable to sleep, Buffy sees a light in the distance and walks toward it. She discovers the self-built home of Boy (River Phoenix) and asks for his assistance.
Boy is Native American, a widower, lives only with his dog, and only minimally interacts with other humans when he travels to the reservation town to get supplies. In getting to know Buffy he becomes smitten by her. This attraction causes friction between him and Harry. Boy simultaneously offers aid to the Fisher’s while at the same time he comes-up with excuses for not being able to get them to where they want to go. As time drags on Boy’s behavior becomes more erratic and aggressive towards Harry, and inappropriate and advancing towards Buffy.
Dark Blood is the film River Phoenix was working on when he died. George Sluizer, the director, faced with his own mortality due to a terminal disease, decided to complete the film as best he could. As such, it is important to understand what Sluizer was working with. At the time of Phoenix’s death, all exterior shots had been filmed, and the cast and crew had just moved to Los Angeles in order to film all the interior shots in a studio. Sluizer deals with this missing footage by narrating key story points of what we should be seeing over still photography of the interior sets. Though the idea is admirable, the effect leaves a lot to be desired. By the end of the film you as an audience member are not entirely sure how dangerous Boy actually is. Without Phoenix’s performances of the intimate, emotional, and claustrophobic interior scenes, the edge of the Boy character is lost. Sluizer’s narration is a poor substitute for an actual performance.
That missing intimacy leaves you with an average film that is exists only as a curiosity because of its status of being River Phoenix’s final film. And though Phoenix’s performance is good, he is also miscast. He does not have the same exotic look that a Johnny Depp has that allows you to accept him as Native American. The character would have functioned better if he was a “white-man” that decided to live off the grid and chose to live as a Native American.
Unfortunately, whether judged as a film with no history or as the curiosity that it is, Dark Blood is at best an average film.
Grade = C
PS These are my Top 5 River Phoenix performances: My Own Private Idaho, Running on Empty, Mosquito Coast, Stand By Me, and Dogfight. Honorable mention, Explorers.