2012 // USA // Jay Kanzler // November 14, 2011 // Theatrical DVD (Landmark Tivoli Theater)
The film-makers who were on hand to introduce the SLIFF screening of St. Louis-based mini-indie 23 Minutes to Sunrise cheerfully conceded that the cut about to be shown was still a little rough around the edges. However, the film’s crudity has less to do with its incomplete color and sound than with the more fundamental flaws in its assembly. While Leonard Cohen growls his way through "Everybody Knows" over the opening credits, four couples slowly converge on a greasy spoon during the wee hours of the night. (The musical selection recalls the same song’s prominent use in Exotica, a film with which 23 Minutes shares a forlorn aura and equitable regard for its characters.) The film is, at bottom, a kind of ensemble Dark Night of the Soul story, and the archetypes that gather at the diner are well-worn: a weary husband and wife (Bob Zany and Nia Peeples) who talk in circles about their flailing relationship; an anxious, hot-headed criminal (Tom Sandoval) and his reluctant girlfriend (Kristen Doute); a sweet-as-molasses waitress (Jilanne Klaus) with a ungrateful lout of a husband at home; and a veteran-turned-cook (Dingani Beza) whose rambling voice-over ruminations on life and God mark him as the doubtful hero of this tale. To these players the film adds its wild cards in the form of an eerie young woman (Haley Busch) and her menacing older companion (Eric Roberts), a pair whose elliptical conversations mark them as unquestionably not-from-around-here.
There is no way around that reality that 23 Minutes is amateurish stuff, a fact betrayed by profuse continuity goofs and often confused editing. The soapy dialog and musical cues wander into snicker-worthy territory at times, and the film lacks the pacing and rhythm necessary to keep a single-location story such as this moving along. Most unforgivably for a film that makes significant narrative hay over a deadline, its presentation of time is absurdly slipshod: seconds seem to last minutes, and minutes seem to last seconds, depending on the scene in question. Despite these problems, there is much to commend in the small details of 23 Minutes to Sunrise. The hesitant romance between Beza’s and Klaus’ characters is touching and naturalistic, and admirably disregards the racial and age dimensions without making a show of its disregard. Excepting the Mystery Couple of Busch and Roberts, the characters are well-drawn and all markedly pitiable in differing ways, even if they are not all sympathetic. Most intriguing of all, 23 Minutes is defiantly resistant to generic categorization. Coiled underneath its veneer of stale melodrama, crime-thriller tension, and mild comic business is a kind of feature-length Twilight Zone episode sans a big reveal. The supernatural eventually rears its head, but never in a manner that definitively places the story within a particular family of fictional conventions. The film lacks a verbose Explanation Scene, and never clarifies exactly why Roberts’ sinister stranger seems to be the dark pole star around which the story’s events rotate. Far from being a maddening fatal flaw, this ambiguity is arguably the most innovative thing 23 Minutes to Sunrise has going for it.