Here’s the IMDB.com synopsis for Bottom of the World: “A mysterious disappearance of a young woman leads her boyfriend on a journey for truth and perhaps his own unknown reality in this dark, hypnotic mystery that transcends the limitations of traditional narrative.” Although it’s poorly written, it does its job well enough, and that’s to sell the movie. I didn’t watch it because of this – the movie arrived with nary a word about it, so I have the benefit of reading the blurb with hindsight. I’m not here to pick the writing apart, just using it to bolster my take on it.
The only person I knew connected with this is Jena Malone, whom I’m quite fond of. Yeah, the woman cut from the misbegotten theatrical cut of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, but who has a small role in Nocturnal Animals – she got her big break as a teen in 2001’s Donnie Darko. She plays a much bigger role in this super low budget indie (she’s the “young woman” in the blurb, if you hadn’t guessed already), but she’s not the star. That goes to Douglas Smith who has a number of small roles to his name, and is kind of perfect for the indie scene. The movie also stars Ted Levine (Dig Two Graves), famous for playing Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. The blurb essentially tells you what happens in the movie, but it oversells the plot. What you have here is essentially someone who was overinfatuated by David Lynch’s last few movies and decided to make their own movie. I don’t think it’s too harsh a criticism – in fact it isn’t much of a criticism at all. As someone who is himself infatuated by the theme of identity, and how it can be warped and twisted and questioned by cinema, Bottom of the World isn’t a bad Lynch-lite effort. I made similar comments in my review of Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy.
The problem with making movies like these, especially where an actor is signed to play two different roles that forces the audience to question the reality of the story, you’re always going to be compared unfavourably to Lynch, who has made numerous movies with the same conceit, and better too. Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive (still my all time favourite movie), and Laura Dern in Inland Empire –they’re all examples of this, and while Balthazar Getty’s Pete and Bill Pullman’s Fred in Lost Highway isn’t a perfect example, the dynamic of the characters and actors is close enough to mention it. In Bottom of the World, the character who undergoes this shift in reality is Douglas Smith’s Alex.
Smith and Malone play a young couple traveling to LA across the old Route 66. Ailing, Scarlett urges Alex to stop at a roadside motel, where Alex sees a hooded and masked man dressed in faded black clothing watch them from the parking lot. When Scarlett goes missing, the masked man turns up to take Alex into the nearby desert. Shortly after this scene, Alex wakes up in a different life, but still retains memories of Scarlett, who now appears to be a different person, and his next door neighbour.
Overall I liked the movie, but it doesn’t completely hold up well, especially when compared to Lynch’s more accomplished technique. In terms of plot and story it mostly works fine as a Lynch-like movie, but there are certain details that don’t work at all. The masked man, for example – I feel this character was inspired by Robert Blake’s Mystery Man from Lost Highway, and the look is interesting, but the voice and dialogue were both very wrong in my opinion – both come off as very amateurish, in contrast with the rest of the production which is mostly pretty strong. I also had a hunch I knew who the masked man was, and I was right. It wasn’t a disappointing reveal, but it kind of made the masked character come off even worse in retrospect. Ted Levine performs well, but his character is given way too much weight in the movie’s first act. Douglas Smith is solid, but even though he’s in his early thirties, it’s not a stretch to say he looks too young to play this part. Predictably, Malone is the best actor in the production – she brings gravity to her role and she and Smith have good onscreen chemistry. They’re a very believable couple, especially in the first act.
I don’t often get confused by these “mind bending” movies, but I was a little when one of the climactic scenes ties itself back to an anecdote told by Scarlett in Act 1, particularly a character in that anecdote, and when the movie ended I wasn’t sure if I’d just completely misinterpreted the ending, or that the writer had failed to articulate the scene properly. I’m prepared to split the difference here and say it was probably a bit of both.
The movie is good looking, I’ll say, and it captures the singular oddness of the American southwest in a way that reminded me of the entertaining horror anthology Southbound. The El Rancho Motel in the movie is an actual motel on the roadside through the small town of Gallup, and the interior of the place lends itself perfectly to this kind of movie. I wish it had been better, but its nonetheless worth watching if you’re a fan of this kind of movie – just don’t go into it expecting it to do its job as well as David Lynch would have done it.