Written and directed by Pamela Romanowsky and based on the book by Stephen Elliott, “Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder”, with “The Adderall Diaries”, James Franco takes center stage as the flawed but fascinating unreliable memorist Stephen Elliott, a best-selling author who is forced to confront the truth about his past when a father he has written as being dead and having abused Elliott as a child, appears at a book reading, dashing all credibility Elliott has built to date. Aghast at his father’s appearance and the vitriol being spewed, Elliott goes down the rabbit hole into what plays out as an examination of editing moments of life to fit our own personal script.
Along for Elliott’s ride is New York Times crime reporter, Lana, a woman he meets at the trial of a man accused of killing his wife and children. Elliott obsesses with the trial, seeing it as his way back into the good graces of the literary world, believing a book on this trial, this man, could be his “In Cold Blood.” As Elliott and Lana start exploring masochistic sexual tendencies together, possibly imitating some of the evidentiary allegations put forth in the trial, they are both oblivious to the fallout happening in the world around them. Lana was on hand for the appearance of Stephen’s father, giving her an edge on what’s really going on in Stephen’s life and mind.
Once the cat is out of the bag as to Stephen’s lack of veracity, he starts having flashbacks. Faint at first, but intensifying and becoming more vivid as he spirals further away from reality, even more disassociated from the truth thanks to self-destructive overdoses of pills and alcohol. And somewhere along the way, Lana has enough, leaving Stephen to find his own way back – if he even wants to, or can.
Stephen Elliott was tailor made for James Franco. He shines, mesmerizing us when regaling stories of others who were once a part of his life. Smoldering with a questioning intensity, Franco makes us feel as if he’s holding something back, that something is just below the surface but can’t break through. It’s a gift that he has always had with his performances, and here he excels with the raw edginess and frustration of facing actual truth as opposed to his edited truth.
As Lana, Amber Heard is a perfect counterpoint to Franco, exuding unspoken sexuality while leading him deeper into the rabbit hole of doubt and frenzy. Another star turn by Ed Harris as Neil Elliott. The anger, the taunting, the toe-to-toe verbal battles with Franco are rock solid but it’s the tenderness as a parent admitting his own flaws that is touching and unexpected. He and Franco feed off each other providing the film’s most emotionally charged and explosive moments. Not to be missed is Christian Slater as the man on trial. Powerful work when on the witness stand or when ultimately speaking with Stephen, aided by deft editing with flashbacks and supposition as to what happened to the wife and children.
Not an easy book to adapt, Romanowsky had her work cut out for her from the start given a multiplicity of themes, a fast paced story and continually shifting POVs. Using voice-over and flashback techniques in dialogue and visually, everyone proves to be an unreliable narrator. Standout are the tacit discussions that arise from the themes of memories vs POV, truth vs lies, fact vs fiction and how all are affected by self memory. Notable is that with the character of Stephen, she has stripped him down emotionally, filling the bill of a writer suffering from writer’s block; there is a blank slate, blank emotion and its only through finding true emotion can the pages be filled.
Cinematographer Bruce Thiery Cheung plays with objective and subjective interpretation through his visual grammar of lighting and lensing. Montages, thanks to some deft and often beautiful editing from Marc Vives, enhance Cheung’s visuals, particularly with Cheung’s use of color. Pops of neon color judicially populate the film as does its saturation levels as Stephen releases his self-made memories of darkness and feels the light.
Completing the picture is a score from Mike Andrews adding a softness that underscores the overall film.
Written and directed by Pamela Romanowsky based on the book by Stephen Elliott, “Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder”
Cast: James Franco, Amber Heard, Ed Harris, Christian Slater