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By Phil Hall | August 21, 2004

You have to excuse me if I sound a bit breathless, but I’ve just been gut-punched by a new film. The production in question is Gregory Hatanaka’s “Until the Night” and this is one of the most mature, devastating and challenging films to come along.

At a time when too many independent films are playing it “safe” and too many festival programmers and commercial exhibitors are fearful of anything that is even vaguely beyond the notion of audience-friendly, “Until the Night” is a jolting howl of courage and audacity. With its small cast and tightly claustrophobic production design, the film will recall the emotional minefields of John Cassavetes’ “Faces” and Mike Nichols’ adaptation of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” But “Until the Night” is hardly a derivative; it is a bold, striking original.

Set in Los Angeles, “Until the Night” circles a group of young people engaged in a self-destructive course of pain and suffering which they inflict on themselves and those around them. Elizabeth (Kathleen Robertson) is a business executive who would seem to have everything: beauty, an articulate presence, a successful career, and a comfortable lifestyle. Yet she has the knack of destroying herself through her attraction to the wrong men. Her husband Daniel (Michael T. Weiss) is a failed actor whose self-pity and erratic behavior has created constant embarrassment for Elizabeth. Her brief fling with a much-too-ebullient co-worker leaves her shattered when he abruptly announces that he’s accepted another job in New York. Her previous relationship was with a would-be writer named Robert (Norman Reedus), who seemed more interested in pursuing vice than bylines.

For his part, Robert is moored to a relationship with a one-time wannabe actress (Missy Crider). If she has a job, it is not apparent. Robert’s interest in her has waned and their relationship has degenerated into screaming matches. As Robert sinks faster into alcoholism, he accidentally runs into Elizabeth and they begin where they left off. But the combination is poisonous: Elizabeth finds herself retreating further into alcoholism while Robert, whose drinking has become seriously out of control, becomes obsessed with her refusal to leave her husband.

“Until the Night” is a courageous film in its willingness to strip down the frailties and vanities of the human experience and expose the raw nerves of individuals who lack the will power or the imagination to improve their lives. The characters retreat into strange and excessive behavior: constant telephone calls to answering machines with the vague hope of a real voice, daydreams of a vulgar and hedonist nature in lieu of genuine romance, chain smoking with enough gusto to keep Philip Morris in the black for a decade, and the willingness to let one’s appearance, career and life fall to pieces without the slightest regret.

Hatanaka’s off-beat casting has worked brilliantly here. Norman Reedus, whose film career seems to have evolved totally under the proverbial radar, is brilliant. He offers a sexy insouciance and a hypnotic voice which recalls a young Robert Mitchum, and like Mitchum he maintains enough of a troubling persona to encourage both fascination and unease. The film’s final shot, in which embraces an image on a giant television screen, is a wonder of physical strength: he is both sensual and pathetic, an object of desire and pity as he shows love to the video image of a woman whom he never respected. He is mirrored by Kathleen Robertson’s wonderfully imaginative performance in which her too-perfect brittle facade crumbles slowly, revealing a vulnerable woman destroyed by her own lack of confidence, and Missy Crider’s harrowing turn as a woman who gave up the real fight long ago and has become comfortable with the low-maintenance tumult around her. There is also a brief but winning appearance by Sean Young as a Hollywood madam who keeps a marginal interest in Robert. She gives wit and intelligence to her screen time which is refreshing both within the context of the film and within her career.

Behind the camera, kudos are in need for Yasu Tanida’s marvelous cinematography; the film captures the entire Los Angeles orbit, from the tacky neon nightscape to the infinity of the Pacific along the lovely ochre shoreline. Colin Chin’s music score, with its wild mix of different styles and genres (from jazz to world to techno and beyond), is probably the finest score I’ve ever heard in an independent production.

“Until the Night” is such a work of professional triumph emotional maturity that it makes nearly every current drama in release pale in comparison. This is what independent filmmaking should be all about — taking chances and succeeding with gusto. What a damn fine movie!

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