Tomorrow You’re Gone is a strange, ponderous cross between a crime drama, a psychological thriller, and a surreal dreamscape. When it was over, I knew I had experienced something, but I wasn’t sure what it was. Perhaps that was the intention, although that approach is likely to repel more viewers than it attracts. Certainly it wasn’t made with every audience in mind, although I wonder if even those that respond to cerebral storytelling will be able to get anything out of it; it never fails to be interesting, and it’s made with a great deal of style, but it eventually becomes clear that it doesn’t know where it’s going, and by the end, it will have no emotional, thematic, characteristic, or narrative payoff. It spends more time getting us to think about what it’s trying say and less time actually saying it.
It’s adapted from the novel Boot Tracks by Matthew F. Jones. I haven’t read the novel, but given the fact that Jones also wrote the film and was one of the executive producers, my feeling is that he was faithful to his own source material. There can be no denying the film’s literary feel, the pacing, dialogue, tone, and imagery more descriptive and thought-provoking than concrete. While I can’t begrudge Jones his desire to see his work accurately translated to the big screen, I wonder if he’s aware that certain stories cannot be translated literally. Some, in fact, require a substantial amount of reworking, perhaps even to the point that it no longer resembles the novel. Just because it works on the page doesn’t mean it’s going to work in a movie, and vice versa. I’ve repeatedly tried to argue this point, but either no one believes me or no one is listening.
The central character is Charlie Rankin (Stephen Dorff), a physically and emotionally scarred man who has just finished a four-year prison sentence. It’s obvious that he’s mentally unstable, and director David Jacobson takes great delight in depicting this; voices chatter in his head, specific shots show rain and shower water falling upwards in his presence, he sees himself standing in a phone booth as he drives past it, and people who he sees behind him may or may not actually be there, and even if they are, their faces sometimes change from one shot to the next. Moments from earlier in the film pop up at random in later scenes, like fragments of memories. It’s almost as if his body hasn’t caught up with time – or perhaps it’s the other way around. There are also several closeups of his face, which is tormented to say the least.
Willem Defoe makes three physical appearances and provides one voiceover narration. We do know that his character, nicknamed The Buddha, was Charlie’s jailhouse friend and mentor. We also know that he has given Charlie instructions to kill someone upon his release from prison. But these are simply bits of information provided to advance the plot; in regards to who The Buddha really is, what purpose he serves or what he symbolizes, I haven’t the slightest clue. As Charlie goes on his quest, travelling from a seedy hotel to a P.O. box, The Buddha will randomly appear and say the most cryptic things, none more ominous than, “Kill that voice in your head.” At a certain point, I had to consider the possibility that this character wasn’t even real, despite the fact that he supposedly sends Charlie a letter with a hidden message in the text.
Into Charlie’s life enters Florence Jane (Michelle Monaghan), a former porn star who invites Charlie to watch one of her movies. She is, on the one hand, a sultry sexpot who tempts Charlie, even though it’s obvious that love is a foreign concept to him. As the film progresses, she will transform into a nurturing mother figure, Charlie’s conscience, and his spiritual advisor, which means they will have at one point have a poetic conversation about a belief in reincarnation, the possibility of the soul, and the existence of God. After Charlie retrieves a substantial sum of money from a bag that was stashed in the P.O. box, he attempts at forming a connection with Florence by buying her a car and promising to take her to a fancy dinner at an expensive restaurant.
We aren’t told a great deal about the man Charlie is supposed to kill, and when he sneaks into that man’s house, we’re left with many more questions than answers. How does he connect to The Buddha? Could he, perhaps, somehow be connected with Charlie? Incredibly opaque hints are dropped in regards to Charlie’s past; we have reason to suspect that he was in some way abused as a child, but if this is the case, we have no idea by whom or in what capacity. Is the man he’s sent to kill his own father, or his stepfather, or a boyfriend his mother dated? By being in Florence’s life, is Charlie somehow being redeemed? Are they redeeming each other? If so, how do we account for the ending, which provides us with only a few lines of abstract dialogue and a shot of the night sky through trees before cutting to black? Tomorrow You’re Gone may not be a boring film, but it is an impenetrable one.
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