Sometimes the biggest surprises can be found in movies we never expected to see. I doubt I would ever have watched 'The Life Before Her Eyes' had it not been plopped upon my doorstep for review. Yet, because I had absolutely no preconceptions going into the film (in fact, I had no knowledge of it at all -- I didn't even read the synopsis on the back of the Blu-ray box), it allowed me to appreciate its numerous, if understated, virtues. Here's a film that received scant distribution and barely any critical notice, and, if not quite a true sleeper due to some narrative flaws, still manages to cast a haunting and evocative spell that lasts long after the end credits fade.
To reveal too much of the plot mechanics of 'The Life Before Her Eyes' would be to spoil the purity that I had going into the film, so I will only sketch in the most minimal of details. Playing the same role, only separated by twenty years, Uma Thurman and Evan Rachel Wood are Diana McFee. Diana at age 38 (Thurman) is a haunted figure who experienced a traumatic, violent incident in high school at age 18 (Wood). Though Diana is now married with a loving husband and a beautiful if rebellious ten-year-old daughter, the anniversary of the incident (and a key emotional decision she was forced to make) is causing her to unravel. Weaving narrative strands between the two different time periods, 'The Life Before Her Eyes' will only slowly reveal to us the ramifications of Diana's decision, until the climax fully brings into focus the true consequences a single moment can make in one's life.
Based on the book of the same name by Laura Kasischke, the screenplay by Emil Stern at first feels a bit haphazard, as it takes a considerable amount of time to sync with the film's deliberately-paced rhythms. Some scenes appear superfluous, or meander over seemingly-insignificant details, so we have to have faith that Stern, and director Vadim Perelman, will reward our patience. But Perelman is crafty in his manipulation, as we are forced to pay attention as we realize that even the most mundane moments will eventually take on considerable significance. Though some may be put off by such a methodical structure, I found 'The Life Before Her Eyes' a welcome challenge. It's rare that a mainstream film so consistently engages not only our awareness of detail, but our intelligence in finding correlations between moments which at first feel unrelated.
Interestingly, the top-billed Thurman has the less interesting role. It is Wood, as the teenage Diana on the cusp of adulthood who gets the meatiest material and really drives the story forward. Thurman is largely left to react to memories of past events, which begins to make her feel like a passive character -- it's a shame that Stern, even though he was working off of previously-published material, could not find a way to more engage the adult Diana in the tapestry of the story's various threads. Though Thurman is effective at conveying Diana's grief and confusion, it's Wood who truly steals the show -- as she has in interesting, quirky films recently like 'The King of California' and 'Across the Universe,' she continues to prove she is one of the most promising young actresses currently working in Hollywood today.
Unfortunately, 'The Life Before Her Eyes' doesn't entirely succeed at its ambitions. The film's final, revealing scenes are competent at answering all our questions and tying up the loose ends in a satisfactory manner, but the emotional heft of Diana's fate never quite hits us with the impact it could have. Though 'The Life Before Her Eyes' is not a film about the supernatural, or even science fiction, it does veer into existential territory in its closing passages, touching on themes that are nothing less than stimulating. Yet, if the film thoroughly engaged my head, it never quite stirred my heart. I welcomed the opportunity to experience a movie that absolutely requires you to watch to the very last shot, but I only wish I felt more when it was over.
'The Life Before Eyes' falls short of being a true undiscovered classic, or even a must-see little indie gem, but there is enough here that is interesting, including the strong performances, a thoughtful script and some magnificent photography by frequent Perelman collaborator Pawel Edelman, that it is a welcome respite from the testosterone-fueled action films that continue to be the mainstay of the Blu-ray format. If 'The Life Before Her Eyes' doesn't completely fit all of its narrative pieces together perfectly, it at least has enough courage and daring to construct such an elaborate cinematic puzzle in the first place.
'The Life Before Her Eyes' is a boldly-photographed film, with some moments of truly exquisite beauty. Though not consistently superlative, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 (2.40:1) transfer is very pleasing, with a nice sense of balance between realism and more overt stylization.
The opening credits set the tone, with some brilliant images of flush, fully-saturated fauna. Colors are vivid, blacks are lovely, and there's a healthy sense of contrast (even if whites can be a bit harsh). The film settles down into a more everyday (if still slightly surreal) quality, with a color palette that continues to tantalize the eyes but is otherwise more subdued. Blacks remain solid, if a slight black crush does lessen detail somewhat. The film is so well-photographed, however (by lenser Pawel Edelman, who also shot 'House of Sand and Fog' for director Vadim Perelman), that it remains textured and utterly sharp throughout. The encode is also very solid, with no edge enhancement or motion artifacts. 'The Life Before Her Eyes' may not seem like demo material, but this is such a fine transfer of often evocative source material that it would be wrong to discount its considerable stellar qualities.
Magnolia offers an English DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/16-bit) for 'The Life Before Her Eyes,' plus a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround option (640kbps). (There are also Spanish subtitles, and though not labeled on the back of the box, English too.) Granted, the film is not an action movie, but I still hoped the subtler aspects of this understated movie would have come through more strongly.
Hampering the soundtrack is a lack of surround presence. 'The Life Before Her Eyes' contains one of the most overlooked scores in James Horner's career, but it's given short shrift here with a lack of activity in the rears. This track is just crying out for robust instrument separation, but it's all front heavy. Even minor ambiance is muted at best. Technically, the track is clean, with ample if not exceptional dynamic range and low bass that's appropriate to the dramatic subject matter. There are no volume balance issues, either, and a clean source. This is a decent audio presentation, but could have been far stronger.
Magnolia has produced an impressive batch of supplements for 'The Life Before Her Eyes,' one far better than I expected. There is real depth to the material here, making these the rare Blu-ray extras worth watching. (All material is presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video only, though the quality is quite high for standard-def.)
'The Life Before Her Eyes' is an intriguing meditation on choices, guilt, and redemption. Though the story often moves in unexpected directions -- and the film is certainly beautifully photographed -- it's still flawed enough to not quite rate full sleeper status. Still, this is good enough to earn a recommendation. This Blu-ray is quite fine, with a pretty transfer, fair audio, and many insightful supplements. If you're in the mood for something a bit different, 'The Life Before Her Eyes' is worth discovering.