Dead Leaves is a post-apocalyptic thriller and had its US premiere at the 4th annual Filmquest Film Festival in Provo, Utah.
Following an unexplained massive extinction event – survivors wander the Canadian woods, searching for supplies, a permanent home and perhaps companionship. As each of three specific groups in the film continue their journeys – they will encounter violence, struggles, vengeance, love and hopefully some meaningful connections.
In my relatively short career of reviewing movies – I can think of only two other examples where a film started off so poorly – and then managed to redeem itself and end on a brilliant high note. Those examples are The Ladies of the House and last year’s Dry Blood.
Dead Leaves can now add itself to this short (enviable?) list.
The difference is that Dead Leaves is not terribly good for the first 2/3 of the film – whereas something like The Ladies of the House caught on in only 15 short minutes.
For Dead Leaves, the film’s final act is where it raises itself up and culminates in something quite memorable.
My big concern is that the film has basically three separate stories. Yes, they do cross paths and eventually merge by the film’s end, but that means the audience is torn for the first two-thirds of the film, until we’re finally able to care and engage. I don’t think it’s a matter of an audience being called upon to multi-task as far as watching the film… but it doesn’t help that we never get enough from any one of the three stories.
It was a poor choice to force the audience to sort of choose. But there’s one clear loser as far as the separate groups. If you’re not Bob and Josee (see below) or Marianne (see below) you’re not the most interesting tale.
The final act of the film is actually quite powerful. The pace picked up. Everything became darker and revenge sub-plots began to rear their heads. And the final silent sequence is really pretty stunning. But you have to wade through a lot of slow pacing and a lot of tiresome back and forth between the three groups.
But where-oh-where was this power and this emotion and this (I’ll say it) brilliance before?
It wasn’t there – because the film is simply unfocused.
I found it striking that there were so many similarities to George Miller’s Mad Max universe. Instead of a desolate and dry desert wasteland, we’re in a Canadian forest sometime in the cold and dreary autumn. Of course, if a film considers itself a post-apocalyptic action/thriller, it’s virtually impossible to not pull from the land of Max Rockatansky.
The film even has its own version of Bartertown (straight out of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). The old man and Josee have a relationship – including calling one another “partners” – not at all dissimilar to that of Max and The Gyro Captain in The Road Warrior.
I point these things out not to attempt to show off my love and knowledge of the Mad Max franchise, but to point out that the post-apocalyptic sub-genre seems to have run out of gas (“the juice, the precious juice”). Dead Leaves also borrows from The Walking Dead and The Road.
Performances from this rather large (and sometimes confusing – two of the actresses look too much alike – in two of the separate groups) ensemble are generally good. It’s no coincidence that the two best performances are also the story I most enjoyed.
And those performances/characters are Bob (played by Roy Dupuis) and Josee (played by Audrey Rancourt-Lessard). This is the central relationship which should have actually been more central. I’m sure there was a way to structure the film which made them the two characters we would follow and love. In fact, that is what happened, despite their 1/3 of the total screen-time.
The relationship is reminiscent of the old Looney Tunes’ Foghorn Leghorn and Chicken Hawk pairing. Or better yet, I’ll again bring up Max and the Gyro Captain or Max and The Feral Kid. Josee is a puppy dog following every move Bob makes – wanting so much to be like him and to be part of his journey. It’s truly endearing and so much of the credit goes to the two actors. There’s an innate chemistry. And again – I’ll complain that we could have had so much more, had the film’s structure been adjusted.
Deservedly so, Rancourt-Lessard won the Best Supporting Actress in a Feature award at Filmquest.
Of course, the additional goodness we get from Noemie O’Farrell’s Marianne (both the powerful performance and the fascinating character development) might have been lost. Hmmmm…
How about this? Meet me halfway – keep the stories of Marianne and Josee/Bob – and get rid of the largest group of nameless wanderers. Sure, the ending might not be as memorable, but the film as a whole would be tighter.
There, problem solved.
As I sat watching the film, and these three stories began to concretely connect, I thought there might be a more profound connection made (a throwaway conversation about Bob’s daughter — turned out to be just that, throwaway). But it was not meant to be. My suggestion to fellow movie-goers wasn’t met with as much enthusiasm as I had, but I think it could have made the film so much better – a bit of an extra twist. Ask me if you really want to know.
The make-up effects – namely in a double surgery sequence – are jaw-dropping. Honestly, it looked as if an actual medical procedure were being filmed… it looked that authentic. And this scene also provides the film with one of its biggest audience cheers – if you’re as sick-minded and revenge-hungry as I and my fellow theatre-goers apparently were
Good to great performances which inhabit a cookie-cutter post-apocalyptic world – and a dreadfully slow pace until the brilliant last act – make Dead Leaves worth checking out. But with so many reservations, I can’t offer much more than a 3.5-star rating.
Bottom line: some films have slow burns (good!) and some films have slooooooow burns (not so good). Dead Leaves lands in the latter category.
Dead Leaves was nominated for several awards at Filmquest, including Best Feature Film, Best Foreign Film, Best Feature Director for, Best Feature Screenplay, Best Lead Actor in a Feature for Roy Dupuis, Best Supporting Actress in a Feature for Audrey Rancourt-Lessard (WINNER), Best Supporting Actor in a Feature for Philippe Racine, Best Costumes for a Feature, Best Sound for a Feature, Best Score for a Feature and Best Make-up for a Feature.
The film is still crackling on the forest floor as it makes its way across the film festival landscape. No wider release information is yet available.