Passion Play

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Toronto Film Fest (Special presentation)–The directing debut of the screenwriter Mitch Glazer, “Passion Play” is a difficult film to get an accurate bead on. It is patently ridiculous on almost every level and few films display such a strange blend of the amateurish and the cringe worthy.
The movie does not really work, as storytelling or drama. But then, it is also impossible to wholly dismiss a film shot by Christopher Doyle or one starring Mickey O’Rourke, Megan Fox and Bill Murray. It tries out a fairly ambitious blend of styles and tones, from the playfully lyric to a magic realist folk tale. That is difficult juggling act for even the most talented and experienced directors to pull off and proves insurmountable a hurdle for Glazer.. 
The most pressing problem is the film exists in a kind of dream world that is poorly detailed and the anachronistic touches deaden the material. The movie exists in a kind of frozen conditional past that never quite comes to life. O’Rourke lacks the same gusto and tragic vulnerability he brought to “The Wrestler.“ He plays Nate, a down and out trumpeter whose great promise was ruined by drugs and alcohol. 
Now playing out a lower depths existence playing gigs at a rundown club, he survives a hit on his life with a patently absurd act of divine intervention. Lost in the desert on the Mexican border, he stumbles across a traveling circus and floats into the curious arms of a beautiful young woman, Lily (Megan Fox), the show’s Bird Woman. She’s a figure out of Orpheus, a tragically beautiful “angel,“ graced with wings who longs for human connection and direct emotional contact.
She intercedes to save Nate from her handler (Rhys Ifans). He promises to save her from the freak show exploitation. The two return to the city, where he must deal with the contract still out on his life. (He made the mistake of sleeping with the wrong man’s wife.) Nate negotiates a plea with the crime kingpin, Happy (Murray) behind the contact. His questionable reasoning is that the connected and feared mobster has the necessary connections to fully capitalize on her commercial power.
The storytelling is filled with awkward and clunky exposition. The entire plot is predicated on his essential betrayal of her, yet she remains strangely protective and faithful to him even after she falls into the evil clutches of the mobster. It is fine to conceive of a work that follows its own logic. “Passion Play” is filled with those kind of tonal or organic inconsistencies. 
Not always for the right reasons, O’Rourke is a weirdly compelling presence who uses his bulk and solidity and scarred, craggy features to capable suggest ruin and damage. Murray is also game, even if the material is not really up to his usual standards. He uses his dark edged humor and volatile, baroque touches in limning the character’s perverse and uncanny malevolence.
If the movie had played off and explored more of Lily’s fragile and complicated consciousness, “Passion Play” might have acquired the combination of grace and heft necessary to pull off the tricky material. Glazer repeats the same mistakes as other directors have with Fox, dealing with her more as décor than a living and complicated human being. She remains too opaque for the drama to reach any edge or exert a real pull.
Otherwise, Glazer likes to mix the sentimental with the outré. Here it makes for some very jarring and uncomfortable moments, like Nate’s sex and drug binge romp with a prostitute whose elaborately drawn tattoos are presumably meant to mark what he has lot with Lily.
Doyle’s work is less flamboyant and baroquely textured than his collaborations with Wong Kar-wai. The movie is saved occasionally by some deft visual marks, like the mirror shots that separate the two would-be lovers. Otherwise, a lot of the interior work feels cramped and suffocating.
The movie does end on a lovely grace note, the only time in the movie where it achieves the sense of flight and movement the whole movies has tried desperately to create. Unfortunately, by then, it is too little and far too late.