Films are, in many ways, like poetry. Everything from characters, to imagery, to dialogue are all designed to reflect one another, much like the lines of a poem. Legendary director Francis Ford Coppola’s Twixt seems to stem straight from the poetry of old, even directly so; its protagonist Hal Baltimore (Val Kilmer) often encounters Edgar Allen Poe in his dreams, in one scene pleading with him for inspiration on a novel he’s writing. And like the works of Poe, there’s an underlying feeling of deep lyricism in Twixt, its final act in particular encompassing a range of emotions, from somber soul-searching to shocking violence. The best filmmakers use those kinds of tools to get their poetry to rhyme. Coppola’s rhymes just fine.
We open with a narrator (Tom Waits) describing the dark, evil past of the film’s small-town setting, after which we are introduced to Hal, an alcoholic author and a “third-rate Stephen King” as the town’s sheriff calls him to his face. Hal is visiting the town for a book signing, and the sheriff is his only fan. The sheriff eagerly suggests they coauthor a book together, but Hal declines, and in a webcam chat with his publisher, admits he wants to get back to doing more personal, less commercial work (mirroring director Coppola’s own desire to move away from making corporate waste (The Godfather Part III, Jack) and start authoring more personal films, as he has been since 2007’s Youth Without Youth).
Back in his motel room, Hal drifts off and begins dreaming of Virginia (Elle Fanning), a girl among other children that were murdered at a nearby hotel in the town. Inspired by the vision, Hal calls up the sheriff and agrees to write the new novel, but soon finds himself locked in a mystery to uncover the dark secrets of the town and its citizens.
Virginia reminds Hal of his own daughter Vicky, herself also taken at a young age. The similarities between them drive Hal to help find Virginia’s murderer, drifting back and forth between sleep and waking. In scenes of Virginia’s murder, the film handles subtext of the controlling nature of religion and its history of child abuse. It’s creepy, but borders on exploitative.
It’s interesting to note that time doesn’t even really exist in the town. Hal regularly oversleeps and misses his deadlines, and the only visible clock in the town, a seven-sided bell tower once said to have been occupied by the devil, has different times on all sides. In one scene, Hal glances up at the clock and checks his phone for the time, but he can’t get a signal. It’s as if he’s venturing further and further into the Twilight Zone.
Coppola says he was inspired to make Twixt based on his dreams. Which is fine, but sometimes dreams are interesting curiosities on film (Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams) and sometimes they’re just bizarre, incomprehensible trash (the films of David Lynch). Twixt falls somewhere in between, thankfully closer to the former, albeit less disconnected.
While the film keeps a consistently moody, surreal-ish tone, the full-on dream sequences are its lowest points, because much of the rhyme and reason behind everything isn’t apparent. Coppola shot these sequences in 3D, and I almost wish I’d been able to see them in the added dimension for further analysis. The 2D version suffices, but it does leave a visible trace of conversion behind.
Most of Twixt’s flaws stem from its astoundingly low budget. I often wondered if some segments were actually shot on video, and many of the film’s effects look like something out of a schlock SyFy special. Still, Coppola peppers the film with enough atmospheric, frankly beautiful lighting that it’s relatively easy to look past the cheapness and see the work of a true master of his craft.
Critics really seem to have it out for Coppola’s “new” career, but don’t believe the hate; Twixt is worth a look for fans of the director. There’s plenty of material here to chew on and dissect, and its poetic origins make it especially fascinating, if altogether flawed in its execution. What really matters is that Coppola is making movies that exude true passion from each and every frame, and I’ll take more challenging fare like Twixt over studio-produced garbage like Jack any day of the week.