I’ve wanted to screen Michael Cimino’s last theatrical effort, 1996’s Sunchaser, ever since it went straight to video after playing for one week in one theater and grossing $21,508. So with the recent passing of this much discussed filmmaker, I figured it was finally time to experience his swan song as an artist. This is an ambitious film, and while I greatly preferred the first hour to the second, there’s no denying that a sense of pure cinema ran through Cimino’s blood, and that he was born to make movies, even if the extraordinary promise of his first three films didn’t lead to the totally exalted career that he might have otherwise attained. All of his features post Heaven’s Gate were mired in behind the scenes controversy, and yet he leaves behind such an eclectic and overall surprising body of work that it’s hard not to understand why he’s beloved by so many.
Starring Woody Harrelson as a yuppie Los Angeles doctor who is about to hit it big time at his current hospital with a big departmental promotion, the film centers on his kidnapping experience at the hands of a 16 year old juvenile convict (John Seda, who looked more like he was in his early 20’s), a street thug sent to the joint for the brutal murder of his abusive stepfather. The twist – the killer is suffering from terminal cancer, and once overhearing that he has one or two months left to live, decides to kidnap his good doctor with the plans of travelling to Arizona so that he can meet up with a Navajo Medicine Man at a supposedly sacred mountain lake. And even when the screenplay gets heavy-handed, as it frequently does, and strains logical credibility, as it frequently does, there’s something fascinating and hard to pin down about this unique yet frustrating effort.
Biting off more than it could properly chew, Charles Leavitt’s overheated and oddly constructed script was a strange if potent beast, with wild shifts in tone working in tandem with a half-predictable, half-unexpected narrative that certainly sacrifices logical honesty in favor of being outright cinematic, especially during the final act. Harrelson was smartly cast against type as a buttoned up man who slowly beings to unravel (this was a few performances after his seminal work in Natural Born Killers), while Seda, despite looking much older than what the story called for, was absolutely fantastic and beyond intense in his part, totally anguished and dangerous one moment and then strangely sympathetic the next. The bold and extremely dynamic 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen cinematography by Douglas Milsome (Full Metal Jacket, Breakdown) stressed open spaces and went for the visceral at all times, with certain driving scenes recalling Friedkin and Mann, while the sequences at the Grand Canyon carried an immense sense of geographical splendor. I’d hate to see how this movie looks in the pan and scan format because they shot this film SUPER wide.
The overly bombastic musical score by Maurice Jarre was at times head-scratching in its decision making, but added a further level of creativity to the proceedings. At a price of $30 million, the film became such a financial wipe out that it clearly served as the final nail in the coffin for Cimino as a filmmaker, studio based or independent. And even if Sunchaser isn’t entirely successful (the quick glimpses of social commentary feel strangely tacked on, with lingering shots of second hand action by unimportant characters included here and there), it still contains that hot-blooded sense of inherent filmmaking that all of Cimino’s work possessed, which immediately makes it better and more interesting than a majority of the films that are being released today. Despite the negative domestic response, Sunchaser was nominated for the Palm D’Or at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival. Available on DVD to purchase or rent.