Before I Disappear (2014)

21 May


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Before I Disappear” is Shawn Christensen’s premiere feature-length film based on his Academy Award winning short film, “Curfew,” and it’s a dark, riveting, successful portrait of a man who’s hit rock-bottom and may be able to find a way out again.

Christensen wrote, directed, edited, and co-stars in this film as Richie, who has found nothing to live for after the death of his girlfriend. Severely depressed, constantly threatened by moneylenders, and even discovering a grisly sight in one of the bathroom stalls at the place he works as a janitor, he contemplates suicide. One day, he cuts his wrist and lays in the bathtub for a while. Not dead, he answers a phone call from his sister, Maggie (Emmy Rossum). Maggie needs him to pick up her pre-teenage daughter, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek), whom he has never met. After bandaging his wrist, he picks her up and drops her off at her apartment until he’s called again to babysit her. The problem is she’s a spoiled brat and he has enough on his plate already. The only reason he’s here is because Maggie, whom he has spoken to in years, is relying on him, which is enough for him to carry on living for a while longer.

A mysterious circumstance (though actually, it’s one of many) causes Richie to Sophia to leave the apartment and walk across the dark side of the city through the night. Richie introduces Sophia to a few places and people he knows well, though they’re not right for a girl her age and he’s not even sure if it’s right for him anymore. As the night grows longer, Richie discovers new harsh truths about some already-harsh people in his life and also comes across unfortunate discoveries related what he saw in the bathroom stall. All while he awaits reuniting Sophia with her mother, Richie must consider the rest of his possibly-short life in order to know if he truly has something to live for.

“Before I Disappear” is a carefully-constructed character piece that is skillfully acted. Shawn Christensen has many hats to wear behind the camera, but he must also act center-stage. As what can probably be expected of someone who must direct his own acting and carry out his own written character, Christensen is nothing short of brilliant, delivering the perfect amount of staggering coldness and genuine emotion that is just right for the character. But he also knows his character and script inside and out, and because of that, he is able to deliver subtleties about the character that tell about his past and his current feelings. Watch this film again, and you might notice something about his performance that you haven’t before. He’s perfect here.

The character of Sophia is not easy to like at first. She’s cold towards her uncle (though to be fair, she’s never met him before) and kind of annoying. And I thought her transition to caring wasn’t entirely convincing to me. I thought it was going to cause a problem for the relationship that develops between her and Richie as the film went on. But surprisingly, the script doesn’t let her down either nor does it let down the character of Maggie, her mother. I won’t say exactly how or why, but you can see full dimensions in these characters as you can see what they’re going through and come to feel for them.

I’ll admit I at first thought the story was overstuffed when it introduced grim subplots including Richie’s drug-addicted, bad-tempered friend (Paul Wesley) and his intimidating mafia-type boss (Ron Perlman), both of whom have connections in one way or another. But as the film went on, there wasn’t a moment when I was bored or thought I’d rather spend running time with another story. And there are many ways to keep it interesting, including a strange but fun sequence in which people in a bowling alley randomly dance to Goodnight Radio’s “Sophia So Far.”

I haven’t seen “Curfew,” Christensen’s short film this is based on, but after seeing “Before I Disappear,” I am curious to seek it out and even more curious to see what this extremely talented filmmaker has in store next.

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