Pay closer attention to the opening sequence in Vanilla Sky, where Tom Cruise's then-unidentified character speeds through Times Square -- both on foot and in a gorgeous Ferrari -- without a soul in sight. The dreamlike nature of the scene isn't easily overlooked, of course, but there's more underneath and beyond the surface than seen at first blush, revealed in whispered voices and quick flashes as he hysterically spins at the heart of New York City. It's a hell of a thing to start a narrative with false bearings on reality like this, later revealed to be the first musings that David Aames has divulged to his psychological evaluator, Dr. McCabe (Kurt Russell), before the start of a murder case. So begins Cameron Crowe's reverent remake of Alejandro Amenabar's Abre Los Ojos, one whose attention to style and emotion justifies its existence while smartly expanding on the mentality of the man in question. What results is a provocative descent into unreturned desire, authentic love, and the power of the subconscious.
Not to give it excuses or anything, but Vanilla Sky didn't really have it easy in the year of its release. On top of being a Hollywood remake of the critically-acclaimed Spanish film, it also had to contend with the debut of Lynch's Mulholland Drive and the wider distribution of Nolan's Memento -- both of which generated buzz by accomplishing similar things in superior ways -- earlier that year. Therefore, the field was crowded in the psycho-puzzle subgenre, and the twisted story of David Aames' conflict of romantic pursuits and amnesiac murder mystery wasn't, in a literal sense, anything new. Crowe tweaks the narrative, though, by emphasizing the protagonist's legacy as the heir to a publishing empire, accentuating his recklessness with the business end of things and a general self-awareness of the tools at his disposal: charisma, wealth, and appearance. That makes it all the more intriguing to watch his casual tryst with clingy actress Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz) evolve beyond his control, and to see it all deconstructed by a beautiful but comparatively commonplace dancer, Sofia (Penelope Cruz), who immediately steals his heart.
Having Tom Cruise in the central role adds a degree of meta-context to Vanilla Sky, whose pop-culture stature merges with David's grasp on vanity and mortality. Already displaying a versatile dramatic side in Jerry Maguire and Magnolia, Cruise admirably embraces the understated commentary on his persona through his character's carefree place of power and his thorny relationship with his father, with his easy charm and building anxiety driven by writer/director Crowe's good-natured style of human interaction. An immediate spark ignites between his character and Sofia within, unsurprisingly, a cluttered celebration of the greatness of David on his birthday, and it stays credible throughout the film due to how Penelope Cruz's down-to-earth wit and allure drags him out of the clouds, shaping into a poignant love story. The standout performance, however, emerges in Cameron Diaz with arguably the best turn of her career (second, perhaps, to Being John Malkovich), encapsulating obsession and one-way affection in a beautiful shell that's both sympathetic and unsettling, the cloud over David's happiness.
Infusing ethereal tracks by composer (and wife) Nancy Wilson and Icelandic band Sigur Ros with classic and contemporary melancholy pop songs, director Crowe again uses his musical awareness to heighten the visual and dramatic tempo in Vanilla Sky. Instead of directly enveloping scenes in the feel of a time period or the clear emotional state of a character, however, his musical selection here transports the audience through the complicated space of David Aames' mind, guiding the film in both similar and differing tonal directions to that of Amenabar's original intents. Crowe's attunement to sound mixes intriguingly with the growingly abstract nature of David's telling of the events, embracing an attitude that's somewhere between the earnest warmth of the director's previous pictures and the disappearing grip on reality within David's psychosis. Overt sentimentality does get in the way of establishing a consistent suspenseful mood, but that duality also becomes one of the film's distinguishing attributes as the tone shifts between those margins.
Along the way, Cameron Crowe never lets the viewer forget that this is a narrative being spun by an imprisoned man in a latex mask, divulged to an inquisitive psychiatrist as he builds a case for David's mental state surrounding a murder accusation. Paired with the evocative perspective of Braveheart and Almost Famous cinematographer John Toll, surreal cues emerge through the film's visual language that suggest there's more to everything than what we're shown, where little details scattered about -- photographs, drawings, even the mole on someone's body -- begin to play with the perspectives of both David and the audience's trust level in him. It's at this point where Vanilla Sky pulls the curtain back on what it's really about, descending into the pandemonium of nightmares and unreliable narration through warped science-fiction that recalibrates just about everything that's transpired thus far. Crowe doesn't get carried away with it all, either, keeping a firm grip on what's safe to be deduced and not as the film shapeshifts into a psychological thriller.
Vanilla Sky tumbles down that rabbit hole in a wild, slyly unsettling climax to the tragic mysteries of David's life, both revealing the truth of what's going on and inviting different interpretations to what it all means through layered clues, more flashes of images and whispers in the distance. It's unsurprising that heavy emotion speaks louder than thematic lucidity in Crowe's ending, the most divergent part of the film from the original; however, the bittersweet nature in how it feeds into the choice between moving on with one's life or perpetuating an illusion says enough. Despite tiptoeing around some rather dark elements, it leaves the audience with a degree of cathartic optimism hanging in the air alongside swelling atmospheric music and painterly surroundings, yet there's also the lingering sensation that everything hasn't been, and won't be, fully answered. Whether repeat viewings will bring that more into focus depends on the viewer, but thankfully experiencing the sweet and sour of David's life is compelling enough to continue doing so anyway.
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Posted by Thomas Spurlin on 7/03/2015