Dermot Mulroney and Lili Taylor Take a Star-Filled Trip to Nowhere



Bright Angel seems to exist to blind us with life.  Its own askew version of life, anyhow.  

A whacked-out, kinda laconic yet literate screenplay realized in a strangely movie-esque version of the American northwest, Bright Angel is an unusual road movie that goes nowhere.  That said, if it’s true that life has a way of punching you in the face, then our main character George (Dermot Mulroney) has lived several lifetimes by the time the end credits roll.

This coming-of-age tale spans from rural small-town Montana to rural small-town Wyoming, leaving a trail of non-eco-compliant exhaust in its wake.  George, caught somewhere between teenager and manhood, opts to hit the road with a buddy (Benjamin Bratt), abruptly leaving behind his life with his father, professional duck thief, Jack (Sam Shepherd).  As such, tension is the name of the game at every turn, stop, and straightaway.  Except, the dominant tensions aren’t of the intended variety.  

The attractive Lucy (Lili Taylor) being along for the ride might have more than a little to do with George’s rash decision to go.  Sporting big fluffy hair and a dozen moods, her dominant one being a kind of broken feminine mystique, Lucy’s mission to travel far to free her incarcerated brother from prison soon becomes the ostensible point of their trip.  

Soon enough, they ditch the hard-drinking Benjamin Bratt buddy, and become a duo.  Lucy’s smart enough to have George’s transparent infatuation figured out, but maybe only that smart.  The film withholds the any expected genuine romance instead trying its damnedest to romanticize its landscape.  George, the naive automaton, makes no attempt with Lucy; she in turn can resist granting him the occasional tease, her singular source of control in her rotten life.  Together, they drive.

Novelist Richard Ford (whose Wildlife was recently adapted for the screen) provides the screenplay, based on two of his own short stories, “Children” and “Great Falls”.  By his own admission, the weaving of these two into a singular freewheeling thing- despite being “what a novelist does”- proved, perhaps, unnatural.  That’s reading between the lines, but an acclaimed author begs such scrutiny.

Dermot Mulroney has thankfully evolved as actor since this painfully bland youth performance.  He’s required to shoulder the film, though at this point he has no shoulders to speak of.  His thoughts churn and burn as we learn precious little about him, and never find out where the experience of this journey has taken him. 

The lion’s share of any specific praise for Bright Angel tends to go to Lili Taylor, a still-fresh face on the scene at the time.  The role of Lucy is manna for any actor, a character both laid bare while also impenetrable.  Lucy never fails to entice even while proving perpetually frustrating.  In lesser hands, Lucy would easily be diluted into a late 1980’s dream-girl archetype, as manic as they come, and at times thoroughly pixie.  But Taylor singlehandedly elevates Bright Angel several rungs, even as she’s surrounded by a revolving door of awe-inspiring screen talent.  Though whatever goods Lucy wields in her soul are damaged, Taylor’s effervescence assures that no one can will take their eyes off of her, lest we miss what she’ll do next.  If any one character can lay claim to the film’s tellingly pretentious title, it’s Lucy.  

Still waters still run deep, though, even in this arid climate.  Before long, George finds himself preoccupied with a plan of his own: find his mother (Valerie Perrine), who unceremoniously walked out on the family in the first few minutes of the film.  Along the way, they make stops meeting a glum rogues gallery of acquaintances, most of whom end up threatening George, beating him up, or worse.  The line-up of unprovoked challengers includes Will Patton, Delroy Lindo, Bill Pullman, Burt Young, and Kevin Tighe.  In an era when “playing crazy” was equated with great acting, performers far and wide were trying to top Jack Nicholson’s Joker.  Bright Angel, for whatever reason, affords each of these guys just such quick opportunity.  Hence, we watch as they race, one at a time, to pull the pins of their sanity into further depths of “unhinged”.

The filmmaker’s and the story’s own desire for authentic Americana is undercut by overdone visual contrivance at every turn, and to a lesser degree, overdone dialogue.  The production design of Bright Angel is indicative of an Art Department kept ridiculously busy when it probably would’ve served the film much better had they done considerably less and trusted the local vibe that their locations offer.  Every surface boasts a fresh coat of paint, the palates always painstakingly coordinated.  

Color-wise, the door matches the trim which matches the light fixture which matches the fabric of a piece of furniture which matches the ironing board cover.  There tends to be a skewed red, white and blue motif about this world, right down to the overly reoccurring Pepsi signage.  Most furniture appears to be straight off the truck from the local mid-century modern antique shop.  This unintended push and pull between Bright Angel’s need for the authentic versus its own force-fed nostalgia is the movie at its most confused.  Does a world this marginalized, this dusty and desolate, really want this much bathroom blue?

On the whole, for all its attempts at earnest drama, Bright Angel ends up being a deathly serious Joe Versus the Volcano.  Which is to say, it’s more or less a strangely fabricated world populated with odd supporting characters, each one having a moment, only never to be seen again.  A winning formula for offbeat comedy; not so much for a drama.

A brighter side to this otherwise weirdly dull film is the opportunity it offers to witness so many noteworthy actors sinking their teeth deeply into their characters.  Another is the fact that there’s no predicting where the story’s headed.  The question is, did Richard Ford know?

This review aside, Bright Angel certainly has its fans.  Those folks should celebrate the arrival of this Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.  Not only is it sourced from a 2K restoration of the film, yielding an image quality that this scrappy indie likely hasn’t sported since it debuted, but its director, Michael Fields, is on hand with a newly recorded commentary track.  Listening to Fields, one is inclined to root for him, even as this, his second feature film, withers.  His observations and sometimes hazy memories aren’t always earth-shattering, but they can be interesting, even illuminating.

The only other bonus is a glossy printed booklet, featuring several pictures from the film, and a new essay by Richard Ford all about it.  Ford, like Fields, seems to be actively holding back on divulging the true depths of his issues with the finished product, opting instead to allude, and allowing fans to retain their unblemished or less blemished views.

A great service that this Blu-ray edition provides is granting this fairly obscure showcase of many great talents (including Mary Kay Place and Sheila McCarthy) a more permanent and impressive digital housing.  Like American Graffiti, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and few others, the opening credits is a who’s who of then-lesser-known rising talent.  Their collective efforts may not ignite a brightly burning movie experience, but Bright Angel can and should burn blu all the same.  This is your chance to catch that Angel.

The images used in this review are used only as a reference to the film and do not reflect the image quality of the Blu-ray.