From the moment Seth (Henry Thomas) and Marcy (Robin Tunney) meet while shoplifting, the tragic blueprint of their lives is apparent. In a film this dour (even the color seems to have been drained away), little more than fleeting happiness can come from their union.
It's a wonder then that Niagara Niagara, the debut from director Bob Gosse and screenwriter Matthew Weiss, still manages to contain some surprises. These come primarily from flashes of black comedy and the fine performances by Thomas and Tunney as a truly oddball couple.
Seth is a painfully shy loner who seems detached from the world around him, but is still aware enough to appreciate small pleasures. Thomas makes him a rather sweet and simple soul, without any specific ambition or agenda.
Marcy, on the other hand, is a complex bundle of contradictions. She has Tourette's syndrome, which manifests itself in both compulsive and ritualistic behavior (much more complicated than the bursts of profanity and tics that most people associate with it). Quixotic, possessive and domineering, she also drives the action. Tunney submerges herself so completely in the role that it transcends an actorly exercise and becomes part of her.
Together, they commence a road trip through New York (to Niagara Falls and eventually Toronto) that quickly turns bizarre and violent.
Screenwriter Weiss seems more fascinated by Marcy's Tourette's than by her character. In an unconvincing twist, Marcy leaves her haloperidol (a drug which suppresses Tourette's symptoms) at home, necessitating that this sad-sack couple visit numerous drug stores in an attempt to fill a forged prescription.
Meanwhile, director Gosse tries hard to make Seth and Marcy into old-time outlaw lovers. When they're taken in by an eccentric benefactor, Walter (the superb Michael Parks), whose isolated farm suggests a Depression-era weigh station, they even end up shooting at cans for target practice.
But the acknowledged influence for Niagara Niagara is Jean-Jacques Beineix's Betty Blue, in which a woman's intense passion is intertwined with madness. As phenomenal as Robin Tunney is, ultimately Marcy's Tourette's becomes just another way to show a woman becoming unhinged by desire.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.