This film review was originally published online at Science Fiction Weekly, October 26, 2007.

Is aging Welsh screenwriter Felix Bonhoeffer (Hopkins) perhaps a bit preoccupied these days? At lunch in Hollywood, he gazes about distractedly as his young friend Tracy (Lisa Pepper) chatters at him about past life regression therapy. He mumbles along in unison with a passing stranger (Aaron Tucker) quoting Poe, but otherwise doesn’t seem to register the man’s presence. And even when a rage-crazed driver shouting “We’ve lost the plot!” tries to shoot him on the freeway, he can only watch dreamily, unconcerned, as other commuters wrestle the man to the ground.

Elsewhere, two anachronistic thugs named Ray and Geek (Slater and Tambor) murder the owner of a bar where the niece of an associate of Felix’s works. Leaving the body to rot in an SUV far out in the Nevada desert, the pair drop in on a local diner, where with slowly deepening menace they terrorize the few staff and customers. Ray rhapsodizes at length about the original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but begins to lose the thread of his soliloquy as it devolves into the rant of a paranoid conspiracy theorist.

Still elsewhere, the on-set death of a film actor throws the production of a noir crime thriller into chaos. The movie’s harried director (Grazer) already has a demanding script supervisor (Manheim) on his case, an obnoxious production manager (Christopher Lawford) ridiculing his every move, a wife battling postpartum depression, a baby strapped to his chest, and a raft of disgruntled actors to worry about. But now, with a venom-spewing studio head (John Turturro) breathing down his neck on top of everything, the director summons Felix to the desert to patch up the script so the film won’t have to be recast.

The thing is, characters from Felix’s script seem to be bleeding over into real life—or perhaps it’s the other way around. A chance roadside encounter with Kevin McCarthy, star of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only leaves him more confused. With visions of a shattered windshield and splattering blood replaying in his head, Felix begins to suspect that something is very, very wrong with him.

An enigmatic actor’s dream project

The one actor here whose performance really stands out is S. Epatha Merkerson, who plays an actor who responds to stress with uproarious laughter. If there’s any character whose head I’d like to see inside, it’s that one.

Slipstream is very much all about Anthony Hopkins, who not only wrote, directed, and starred, but also composed the score and played piano on the soundtrack. His real-life wife Stella Arroyave produced, and she plays a character in the movie who is sometime identifiable as Felix Bonhoeffer’s wife. Though long stretches of the film go by in which Hopkins doesn’t appear onscreen at all, the viewer begins to suspect that other characters are standing in for him, even while the fractured storyline and kaleidoscopic editing hurl images our way that may or may not signify connections with Hopkins’s actual long career as an actor.

Stylistically bold, playing like the illegitimate movie offspring of David Lynch and Oliver Stone, Slipstream is a surprisingly surreal exercise in stream-of-consciousness filmmaking. It’s a puzzle, a series of bizarrely interconnected elements structured with the logic of dreams. Barely a minute of film goes by without some visual or aural trick—a stutter cut, a scene running backward, a switch to black-and-white, a car changing color, the sound of a typewriter carriage return, flashbulbs suggesting an unseen photographer, intercuts of archival news footage—suggesting that the proceedings are all taking place inside Felix’s head.

Unfortunately, this leaves the viewer with very little in the way of engaging story to cling to. Rather than unfolding naturally in an elegant and logical progression, the film is so overstuffed with stylistic ticks and tricks that distractions overwhelm any interest in the material itself. The performances by the actors are all over the map, and almost beside the point, since Hopkins deploys them as symbols and markers, entities from below the conscious mind, rather than as recognizable human characters. All the audience can do is try to sift through the storm of images for clues as to what’s really going on here.

Attentive moviegoers will have no trouble figuring it out, especially given that so many characters keep referring to things ending, and will distract themselves from the increasing tedium working through the connections between the jumbled imagery and the rest of the director’s body of work. (Does Hitler keep showing up because Hopkins played him on television in The Bunker? Is there a reason Felix shares a last name with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian hanged for conspiring to assassinate Hitler? Is the Nixon imagery a nod to the Oliver Stone film Hopkins starred in? Speaking of which, isn’t Christopher Lawford a nephew of JFK? What is Brian Grazer’s brother doing here, playing a director whose brother is Brian Grazer? And when might Hannibal Lector show up and start eating people?)

This conspiracy of detail only serves to shroud an ending that plays like a rehash of Mulholland Drive, but in a far more banal and prosaic way, ultimately shedding little light on the character of the protagonist we’ve spent so much time with. As far as vanity projects go, this one certainly takes chances, and it may be the most personal film a marquee actor has ever made. But it’s hard to know what audience it was made for. The casual moviegoer will be completely bewildered, while fans of David Lynch will see the ending coming and wonder what all the sturm und drang has been about. Is it a satirical jab at the movie industry, a poignant reflection on the emptiness of life, or something else altogether?

One suspects that the perfect way to watch it would be from inside Anthony Hopkins’s head, because only there it would seem like a film that matters.  

Rated R
Destination Films and Strand Releasing
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Stella Arroyave, Michael Clarke Duncan, Fionnula Flanagan, Gavin Grazer, Camryn Manheim, S. Epatha Merkerson, Christian Slater, Jeffrey Tambor, John Turturro and Kevin McCarthy
Written and directed by Anthony Hopkins
Produced by Stella Arroyave and Robert Katz
Open now in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Irvine