A weekly check-in on what’s going on in the world of movies that didn’t make it to theaters.
At the risk of employing hyperbole, you could not be a moderately sensitive heterosexual young man in the late ’80s and early ’90s and not have a massive crush on Winona Ryder. For me and countless other members of my generation, Ryder was the ultimate dream girl, a gorgeous sprite with a quirky, offbeat sensibility and vaguely cerebral charms. She was Tim Burton’s muse as the iconic star of Heathers, Edward Scissorhands, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Beetlejuice, and the high-profile paramour of Johnny Depp (who famously got a tattoo reading “Winona Forever” that he later had altered to the even more awesome “Wino Forever”) and more tremblingly sensitive rock-’n’-rollers than is discreet or respectful to document here. When Matthew Sweet crooned of his unrequited love of Ryder on Girlfriend’s “Winona,” he was channeling the hopes and dreams and lusts of countless young men like myself. During her heyday, it seemed like everyone in the world was pining for dear, sweet, precious Winona.
Ryder seemed to have a future of infinite promise, but the years have not been kind to her. In 1999, she realized her dream project when she starred in and executive produced Girl, Interrupted, the film that won Angelina Jolie an Oscar and catapulted her to stardom. The role of Girl, Interrupted author Susanna Kaysen would continue to cast a long shadow over Ryder’s career, especially after she was arrested for shoplifting in late 2001, an arrest that made no sense. Why would a rich, famous actress steal $5,500 worth of clothing? But combined with Ryder’s role in Girl, Interrupted, the arrest changed the actress’ image from endearingly quirky oddball to broken young woman struggling with mental illness.
The world fell in love with Ryder as a girl and then as a quintessential angst-ridden adolescent, but didn’t quite know what to make of her as a troubled adult. She was too intense and controversial for light romantic comedies, but had difficulty being taken seriously as a heavyweight dramatic actor after she became an ex-con and tabloid fixture. The movies got a whole lot smaller. Ryder’s major film appearances were increasingly limited to cameos or minor supporting roles, while a slew of her post-arrest work pretty much went direct to video (The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, The Darwin Awards, Sex And Death 101, The Last Word, The Letter). It’s telling that her two most memorable and acclaimed roles of the past decade were in intense psycho-dramas about broken, mentally ill protagonists wrestling their demons: 2006’s A Scanner Darkly and 2010’s Black Swan.
2012’s The Letter also puts Ryder front and center in a moody psychological thriller about a broken, mentally ill protagonist wrestling her demons, but the results are as forgettable as A Scanner Darkly and Black Swan are memorable. It’s directed by Jay Anania, an NYU directing teacher whose former students include James Franco, which helps explain Franco’s presence in the film—as does the fact that at this point in his career, Franco will say yes to anything. Seriously. There are crack whores who are more discriminating in their choices than Franco, whose life and career seem to be one big performance-art piece. If Franco were asked to star in Wookiee-themed snuff porn, he would probably agree in a heartbeat, just to be able to say that he isn’t one of those snobby, uptight Hollywood actors.
The Letter opens with Ryder delivering unspeakably pretentious narration in a shaky little-girl voice quaking with emotion. She sounds fragile and broken, as if talking to us from beyond the grave. This establishes a tone of insufferable art-school pretension from which the film never wavers. The Letter is so pretentious that it wears a beret, smokes clove cigarettes, and rides its impeccably restored bicycle to an independent coffee shop to write a post-graduate dissertation about itself titled Girl Interruption: Madness And Menace In The Theater Of Life In The Letter.
Ryder plays a playwright-director who seems completely overwhelmed by the challenges of breathing and stringing words together in a coherent sentence. Though maddeningly verbose in her pseudo-poetic narration, she’s fumblingly inarticulate when offering direction to her frustrated actors in a new play that seems to make sense only to her. Franco co-stars as an actor who begins playing sinister mind games with the cast, which upsets the fragile ecosystem of the theater. Franco undermines his colleagues’ confidence and sense of self, and luxuriates in the bad vibes his manipulation engenders. The Letter is a good illustration of why actors are the worst, most fucked-up people ever, and I say that as someone who loves and respects actors.
Though he’s billed as a lead, Franco is really a supporting player who disappears for long stretches so the film can focus on Ryder’s fuzzy psychological descent. (A quivering bowl of Jell-O on the inside, Ryder is clearly crazy from the first frame, so her descent into a slightly more advanced form of madness doesn’t carry much weight.) Franco’s smirk can be sinister or charming based on the role and the situation, and The Letter employs his charisma to creepy ends. But the film doesn’t give him much to do beyond say creepy things and shoot predatory glares in all directions. There’s supposed to be sexual tension between Ryder and the parasitic Franco, but Ryder’s character seems stuck forever in a pre-sexual frame of mind, and Ryder herself remains girlish in her 40s. That quality can be haunting and effective in the right role. But in yet another of our culture’s poisonous double standards, when a man retains his childlike essence late into middle age, we consider it an Apatowian comedy, while when a woman does the same, it’s read as a Tennessee Williams tragedy.
The Letter seems to take place largely inside Ryder’s childlike and rapidly disintegrating mind, as she devolves from broken and sad to insane. But Ryder’s fractured psyche is an awful place to visit, and you certainly wouldn’t want to live there. The film is a mood piece; unfortunately that mood is one of unrelenting, arty tedium. Anania’s groaningly portentous direction here illustrates the truth of the old adage that those who can, do, while those who can’t teach—and are sometimes fortunate enough to rope one of their famous former students into one of their feature-length bad ideas.
Just how bad is it? Oh, it’s fucking dreadful. Pretty much devoid of any redeeming facets.