April 18th, 2004
A quirky and imaginative movie which will invariably end up on the shelves of neighborhood video stores shelves in a specialty section with “Blue Velvet” and “Donnie Darko,” “Rhinoceros Eyes” features the young actor Michael Pitt in his best role to date, as the strangely named socially awkward protagonist of Aaron Woodley’s debut feature. No doubt looking to take advantage of Pitt’s recent exposure in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers,” anything that gets people to see this unique movie is acceptable to this reviewer. While far from being a perfect movie, film fans looking to discover stimulating new works by up-and-coming cinematic storytellers will find much to take pleasure in.
Pitt plays Chep, who came to work at a movie prop house in the big city by mistake. When Bundy (“Sopranos” regular Matt Servitto), the owner of the prop house, bought the effects of a recently deceased older couple, Chep was one of the items purchased, and while the faltering business really did not need another employee, he is encouraged by Chep’s enthusiasm for all the unique items in storage, and allows the young man not only work there but reside there as well, leaving the confines of the shop only for a nightly visit to the local movie theatre. Not intelligent enough to want anything more from life, Chep is perfectly content to live his life at the prop house, until fate brings Fran (Paige Turco) into the shop. An art director for a movie shooting in town, Fran is more than just a bit obsessed about having things her way. Of the props she needs for the next portion of her shoot, the prop house can fill her every need save one: a pair of genuine rhinoceros eyes. When Chep, who is instantly smitten with the lovely art director, is able to procure a pair, Fran begins to rely on him to attain even more fantastical items, unaware that Chep is not coming across these items in the most legal means possible, breaking into the homes that line his path between the prop house and the movie theatre, which he often stops to watch through the windows of. While the rash of unlawful entries are being investigated by Detective Barbara (“Queer as Folk” vet Gale Harold), Chep’s desire for Fran becomes stronger, and his grip on his own reality that much weaker, until he is forced to battle his own demons.
What makes “Rhinoceros Eyes” pleasurable is its intoxicating mix of familiar movie genres and reverence to semi-obscure artistry. Being the nephew of master filmmaker David Cronenberg may explain Woodley’s willingness to attempt bridge so many different elements. At his most successful, Woodley emulates the surrealistic stop-motion 3D animation styles of artists like the Brothers Quay and Jan Svankmajer to illustrate Chep’s final descent into madness. It is clear Woodley and his crew spent much time and care working on these moments.
Less lucrative is Woodley’s subplot featuring the singing cop Barbara. While Mr. Harold gives his character his best, Det. Barbara is too thinly drawn and too much an incompetent boob (at one point, Barbara is so busy fawning over a prop at the prop house that he fails to notice a crucial piece of evidence in clear view not a few steps away) that he ends up being more distracting than essential to the overall story.
Filmed before “The Dreamers,” Pitt seems to know this is his moment to shine, and so very brightly does he. Chep is one of those roles actors know won’t bring them fame or fortune directly, but help to add a memorable character to their short resume, which will help them get bigger and better jobs in the future. Chep may very well be a savant, but unlike Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning role in 1988, Pitt does not feel the need to play up the role. He is so unassuming that, when Chep does finally descend into his mad manifestations, the effect is shocking.
A film rich in depth and texture, “Rhinoceros Eyes” should give avid cinéastes a pleasurable time at the theatre, not only from the story and performances but also the cornucopia of movie references sprinkled throughout the film. Put this on your list of films to see, be it in theatres or on video.
My rating: A-