This review won't spoil the twist ending of The Life Before Her Eyes, a drama that follows Uma Thurman and Evan Rachel Wood as the same woman at two different ages. Granted, acknowledging the very existence of a surprise resolution may qualify as too much information.
But the film's director, Vadim Perelman, might not mind spoiler reviews. Perelman told a Tucson film critic, "What's strange about this film is unless [audiences] know the twist, I don't think they enjoy the movie ... I've come to the conclusion that it's better to know and kind of follow along."
The Life Before Her Eyes' revelation lacks the script-flipping originality and narrative depth of the most famous twist endings. If anything, the film would be stronger without trying to emulate the M. Night Shyamalan fad. Perelman's quote could offer license to give away the film's secrets, but other problems haunt The Life Before Her Eyes more directly.
Thurman plays Diana, a wife, mother and college lecturer who, having survived a Columbine-style school shooting, lives in the shadow of the event's trauma. As a teenager, Wood's Diana was on the scene of the massacre, which turned her already troubled adolescence upside-down.
Wood's side of the story jumps back and forth between the day of the shooting and earlier incidents of Diana's teen rebelliousness. It's not always easy to follow the sequence of events. Fortunately, Thurman's track only moves forward as she dreads the massacre's impending anniversary, and discovers problems with her philosophy professor husband (Brett Cullen) and their adorable but willful daughter Emma (Gabrielle Brennan).
Life's most striking quality is the gulf between Diana's nervous, doubtful adult life and the fearlessness of her teenage years, during which her poor judgment belies her intelligence. Thurman delivers an expressive portrayal of Diana's poor self-esteem, especially as she squirms like a schoolgirl when meeting one of Emma's stern teachers. As an adult, Diana worries that her daughter inherited the same reckless streak, but she can't figure out how to redirect it.
The present-day scenes never give Thurman a foil, and play like a cookie-cutter supernatural thriller, only without explicit scares. The flashbacks benefit from the sharply written, insightful relationship between Diana and Maureen (Susan Sarandon's daughter Eva Amurri). They're best friends even though Maureen's devout, evangelical beliefs make her the polar opposite of Diana's sexually experienced pot smoker.
Emil Stern's script, which is based on Laura Kasischke's novel, offers an unusually realistic and complex portrait of a Christian teenager – one who wears blue jeans and doesn't quote Scripture like the stereotypical brainwashed cult member in most movies. It's a little too pat when Diana compares them to "the virgin and the whore" as art history archetypes, but their conversations give the film its most subtle, unforced philosophical dimensions (and are played marvelously by the young actresses). Maureen's faith gives her confidence in the meaning of life, while Diana searches for transcendence in more haphazard, potentially risky ways.
The Life Before Her Eyes affirms Perelman's affinity with actors he showed in his debut film, The House of Sand and Fog. Perelman's willingness to embrace grim subject matter proves easier to admire than enjoy, however, and his depressive tone nearly suffocates the film. While Sand and Fog had the benefit of a sharply observed clash between two cultures, Life sinks under the weight of banal dialogue: "When is it all gonna start?" "When is what going to start?" "Our lives."
The movie's lush, dreamy photography captures flowers, aquariums and insects in surreal close-ups, but the film practically drops its symbols on the audience's heads. Cougars are not just mentioned for maternal qualities on television – young Diana's boyfriend even has a live, caged cougar at his apartment. The recurring use of the Zombies' first hit song provides some heavy-handed foreshadowing.
Whether a sneaky, stylish thriller or an overly serious think-piece like The Life Before Her Eyes, a film shouldn't use its twist as a crutch. Ideally, an unexpected ending adds another dimension to a film that could stand on its own otherwise. The Sixth Sense would be a crackling occult mystery even if Bruce Willis' character were alive. Plus, a smart reveal should make re-evaluating the story more rewarding. Take The Crying Game for instance: "Say, if Jaye Davidson's a dude, then that means Forest Whitaker's character was ... oh."
The Life Before Her Eyes' twist is easy enough to guess that most audiences will find themselves ahead of the plot. The movie's portentous discussions of "conscience" only belabor the points. Thurman's, Wood's and Amurri's performances are all strong enough that they deserve a straightforward exploration of intriguing ideas about survivor's guilt, and the gap between youthful aspirations and adult life. Instead, The Life Before Her Eyes stakes its best aspects on the strength of the kind of gimmicky "gotcha" we can see coming a mile away.