Local filmmaker Ira Sachs' Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner (see cover story, page 21) is like a muted version of a John Cassavetes film from the '70s. There's domestic turmoil, infidelity, quiet desperation -- but rather than erupting into operatic histrionics, the longing and unhappiness of Sachs' characters remain mostly interior, seeping out in brief spasms of emotion and small cinematic grace notes.
Also, like many of Cassavetes' best films, Forty Shades of Blue depends on a knockout performance from a distinctive blond actress. The film top-bills Rip Torn, who spins a compelling and rather unflattering variation on the Sam Phillips persona (with the craggy beard to match), but the movie belongs to Russian actress Dina Korzun, who plays Torn's live-in girlfriend and baby mama, picked up in Russia while on a business trip. The New York Times has labeled Korzun a "scene stealer," but how do you steal something that belongs to you from moment one? Forty Shades of Blue is essentially about a woman who has more than she could ever imagine and discovers that she has less than she deserves. Korzun's performance is reserved where Cassavetes' muse Gena Rowlands was overpowering, but Korzun makes you feel this woman's discomfort, panic, and final desire for something more. She's quite a find.
Sachs makes great use of Memphis locations throughout. He knows where an aging, wealthy, Memphis-to-the-bone character like Torn's would live and where he would go, and the director turns the lens on the city's sometimes ossified music culture with affection but also honesty.
Forty Shades of Blue isn't without flaws: Darren Burrows, who plays the third link in the film's Oedipal triangle, is obscured by the magnetism of his co-stars. And a scene that occurs at Senses nightclub feels contrived.
This is a quiet, patient film, probably too understated and too lacking in star power to make much of a dent at the box office. And I don't think it was the best film that played Sundance (nor do I think Memphian Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow was). But it is a compelling, moving work.
Opens Friday, September 30th, at Studio on the Square and Cordova Cinema