Michael Cimino’s “Sunchaser” (1996)

Notable Festivals: Cannes- In Competition

After the dismal reception of DESPERATE HOURS in 1990, director Michael Cimino again went into a self-imposed exile from the screen.  It would be six years until he was able to put together another film.  By all accounts, Cimino was a washed-out has-been; an irrelevant filmmaking force for almost twenty years.  In 1996, he broke his silence with the release of SUNCHASER, a film that initially got Cimino’s hopes up with its inclusion into competition at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival.  However, the film was received by US test audiences so poorly that it was never released theatrically.  With this development, Cimino was dealt a killing blow.  The once-great director of THE DEER HUNTER (1978) saw his last film condemned straight to video, and his career’s tragic fate was sealed.

In a move that comes full circle with his debut film THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (1974), SUNCHASER is a modern road film starring mismatched “buddies” who rage against the American landscape in roaring muscle cars.  The story follows Michael Reynolds (Woody Harrelson), a young, mild-mannered doctor on the verge of a big promotion.  When he’s kidnapped by his patient– a teenage convict with terminal abdominal cancer named Blue (Jon Seda)– he’s forced at gunpoint to drive his hostage-taker out into Najavo Country in search of a mystical mountain lake with healing powers.  Along the way, they form an unlikely bond, and Reynolds decides to risk everything to bring his captor to his destination.

The characters, as written by screenwriter Charles Leavitt, are oftentimes stereotypical and one-dimensional.  Even Harrelson and Seda, whose characters actually undergo a transformation, have to contend with cliché plot developments and archetypes.  As a man made cynical by virtue of his intelligence, Harrelson is convincing in the role of Dr. Reynolds.  It’s not a particularly memorable performance, but it never feels false either.  There’s no doubt that Harrelson is an excellent performer, and – like a consummate professional– he gives everything he has to the lackluster material he’s got to work with.

As a foul-mouthed gangster with a spiritual side, Jon Seda is the most compelling character in the story.  He’s overly intense and mean, but one suspects it’s a façade meant to cover up at the sheer terror he feels internally at the prospect of only having two months to live.  He assumes the symptoms of his disease convincingly, and the earnestness in which he believes in the healing lake ultimately renders his character endearing and sympathetic.  He’s a by-the-book foil to Harrelson, subverting him and providing conflict at every turn.

The only other cast member worth mentioning is the venerable Anne Bancroft, in an appearance that amounts to a glorified cameo.  She plays Reneta Baumbauer, an elderly New-Age hippie who shares a brief ride with Michael and Blue.  While her screen time is scant, it’s a testament to Bancroft’s talent that she remains one of the film’s most memorable characters.  Unfortunately, Leavitt’s characterization and dialogue leave her with a fairly stock granola-cruncher persona that doesn’t have a whole lot to do other than reinforce the film’s stereotypical New Age themes.

After the visual coma that was DESPERATE HOURS, Cimino returns to the screen with a surprising energy that harkens back to the style that made his name.  I’d even go so far as to say that it’s his most visually impressive film since 1980’s HEAVEN’S GATE.  Cimino re-teams with his Director of Photography from DESPERATE HOURS, Doug Milsome.  Shooting on 35mm film, Cimino makes his grand return to his preferred 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  He maintains other signature elements of his style, such as deep focus, wide compositions, and a mix of steadicam, dolly, and crane camera movements to add scope.  He even incorporates a few aerial shots for good measure.  Colors, while natural, favor a flat palette of pastels and earth tones that seems more appropriate for an 80’s film, but they don’t detract from the visual majesty of the film’s desert locales.  Other signature visual elements, like dramatic vistas and Americana imagery, complete Cimino’s roll call of aesthetics.

For the film’s music, Cimino works for the first time with Maurice Jarre, who contributes a bombastic, old-school big orchestra score that’s at odds with Cimino’s modern, gritty visuals.  Many times, it sounds laughably off-tone, as if it’s being played for comedic effect.  Jarre also crafts a secondary theme with a variety of synths that evokes one of those medical monitoring machines—a nice idea, but lacking in execution.  Cimino also sprinkles a variety of hip-hop and rap songs throughout the film that helps to flesh out Blue’s hard-knock life.

Despite being a straight-to-video release, I found SUNCHASER to be a surprisingly decent film—much better than DESPERATE HOURS or THE SICILIAN (1987).  The six years away afforded Cimino ample time to creatively refresh himself, and his renewed energy generates brief flashes of greatness.  Starting with some gnarly neon/day-glo opening titles, the film clips along at a distinctively un-Cimino-esque speed.  He even incorporates some expressionistic techniques, like black and white flashbacks and cross-cutting between simultaneously occurring-sequences.

Some of Cimino’s biggest influences were the Monument Valley westerns of John Ford.  SUNCHASER sees Cimino directing in the same iconic locales that his idol made famous, which gives Cimino added inspiration.  It’s also somewhat comforting to see Cimino’s film career end with a closing shot that echoes the cinematic brilliance of his earlier works.  The shot in question tracks Blue running breathlessly towards the fabled lake, his own body fighting him as his cancer shuts it down.  It’s a tense moment where it’s uncertain that he’ll make it.  And just as his feet splash into the water, he slowly disappears into thin air.  Invisible, splashing feet peter out, and once again the lake is calm and still.  It’s a sublime, supernatural ending to a film concerned with faith and spirituality.  All around, just a really nice touch.

Small moments of true inspiration like that are few and far between in SUNCHASER, but when they happen, I’m reminded of why Cimino was hailed as a great director in the first place.  However, his best efforts weren’t enough to salvage his career- SUNCHASER recouped only thirty thousand dollars of its $31 million budget, thus becoming the biggest flop of Cimino’s career and effectively rendering him unemployable.  The film was swiftly forgotten, and, unfortunately, so was Cimino.  Watching it for the first time sixteen years after its release, I found SUNCHASER to be a highly erratic and flawed, yet somewhat underrated film.  Given the downward trajectory of Cimino’s film quality thus far, I was expecting an entirely different experience– so I was impressed to see Cimino look like he was truly trying to recapture success.

As of this writing, Cimino has remained relatively silent since the failure of SUNCHASER.  In 2007, he contributed a new short film, NO TRANSLATION NEEDED, to a little-seen anthology film , TO EACH HIS OWN CINEMA.  Since I was unable to procure that for the purposes of this project, SUNCHASER has to serve as the final development in a remarkable career.  Of course, the man is still alive and well, and might have another one or two great films in him yet—however, given his current sixteen-year absence from screens, I’m compelled to think that probably won’t be the case.

When I first started writing about Cimino’s body of work, I invoked the myth of Icarus—the boy who flew too close to the sun and plummeted into the sea.  In the grand scheme of things, maybe it was a fluke that Cimino made one of the best films ever made.  Maybe he just got lucky.  I think the more likely narrative is that Cimino was, and still is, a brilliant filmmaker of the highest order.  But like the Gods in Greek myth, his fatal flaw brought him back down to earth, condemned to live amongst us mere mortals as punishment for his hubris.

Ultimately, the story of Cimino’s career is a cautionary tale.  Young filmmakers drunk on their own successes would do well to remember the lessons that Cimino (to his own peril) could not.  Filmmaking is enough of an egomaniacal pursuit as it is without tyrannical personalities thinking that they are infallible.

That being said… even if he never made another film, Cimino would leave the world of cinema with an unimpeachable treasure (THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT), a  bonafide masterpiece (THE DEER HUNTER), and a misunderstood, controversial epic that has gained appreciation with time (HEAVEN’S GATE).  Regardless of whatever tarnish his later films wrought, those three films are a cinematic legacy that anyone could be proud of.

SUNCHASER is currently available on standard definition DVD via Warner Brothers.