First Love, Last Rites, based on a short story by British writer Ian McEwan, is the sort of film which favors mood and character over narrative. Drifting dreamily with its three principals as they slouch through a hot summer in Southern Louisiana, it’s a beautifully photographed, gothic chamber piece, ambitious and interesting to watch yet ineffective.
"It was my first initiation to love ... and to the creature," says transplanted Brooklynite Joey (Giovanni Ribisi) in an opening voice-over, referring to Sissel (Natasha Gregson Wagner), the local girl he’s taken up with, and to the rat which scrabbles noisily behind the wall when they’re making love. Anyone familiar with McEwan’s writings will recognize the somewhat Blakean mix of beauty and rot, the ecstasy and innocence of a first romance juxtaposed with the sound of clawing death lurking just out of sight.
The rat, along with insinuations of doom and drowning, punctuates the slight story and is obviously meant to make it resonate – but it’s the sort of thing which works better on the page, where the tone of the imagery can be modulated by language. On screen, this penumbra of deeper meaning is reduced to cliché, as first-time director Jesse Peretz falls back on the coarse indicators of color filters and murky lighting.
The third character in the film is Sissel’s estranged father Henry (Robert John Burke, best known as the cryptic heroes in Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth and Simple Men), a half-mad and menacing schemer who draws Joey into a get-rich-quick plan which involves capturing huge quantities of eels – another unsavory creature freighted with symbolism.
Of the previous attempts to adapt McEwan to the screen, which include The Cement Garden, The Good Son and The Innocent, only the Paul Schrader-Harold Pinter collaboration, The Comfort of Strangers, has come close to capturing the writer’s complicated creepiness. Peretz and his screenwriter David Ryan are too literal and are ill-served by Ribisi, who method-acts up a storm without quite finding the character. Both he and the movie would have benefited from a little more creative madness.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.