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In the back corner of City Lights Bookstore, Winona Ryder is probably chewing up on the poet of the decade in a dark red beret, with the ghost of Bukowski by her side. She breathes into your soul, “Fan or not, I don’t need your approval.” Seam-lined in all her semi-decade artsy film reviews is a certain pitiful thought: whatever happened to wonderful Winona?
Winona has made some good films in the last few years, including playing the nemesis of Natalie Portman in “Black Swan” and the wife in “Iceman.” She doesn’t care about living up to her teenage glory. I recently watched a Lionsgate film on Netflix called “The Letter.” Winona plays a distraught playwright trying to re-work her script in a kind of human-like lab of experimental actors. Her re-writes overshadow the paranoia she develops, especially when her male lead, who is her boyfriend Raymond (Josh Hamilton), seems to favor Anita, played by actress Marin Ireland.
This is the kind of film where you have to second-guess which scenes are fantasy and which are reality. It appears as though Raymond is her rock, the boyfriend she can depend on, as the scenes progress. As the movie develops, Winona’s character, Martine, spirals into fantasy scenes that are dark and compelling. She sees a pirouette doll with no eyes that captures her onstage. She lies under a tree with shimmering leaves while a character played by James Franco kisses her on the cheek and plays with her loyalty. There are a lot of poetic pauses in the film to fill the lens of the audience, the interpretation of the design.
The basis of the movie is deception. The more she tries to analyze the movements of her actors while they utter the lines she wrote, the more she questions their sincerity. She starts imagining her boyfriend falling for Anita. It seems like a case of insecurity or paranoia, until her fantasies and delusions get more exacerbated. She runs into a college friend in a coffee house. That night, she dreams the friend got killed in a car accident right after they conversed at the coffee house. The police come to interview her the next morning. They play audio found at her friend’s in which she was arguing with a boyfriend. The scene is so real that it jars her whole consciousness. But the next thing the audience learns is that it was part of her imagination.
The movie becomes frustrating at certain points because one does not know where it is going. The playwright writes a play. She changes the story with re-writes based on her paranoia and observation of actors in rehearsal. She weaves her greatest fears into the lines, including sexual innuendos between characters. There is no ending. A character in the play toys with the women. James Franco makes a sexual advance to an actress named Elizabeth played by Dagmara Domincyzk. He fingers her to full-blown climax in an office while they are waiting for Martine to come back. She basically says “Thanks for the affection” like it was an electronic Hallmark greeting.
James Franco’s character, Tyrone, is supposed to be the antagonist in the film. He is successful in the play never getting off the ground to performance, but the director of “The Letter,” Jay Anania, never fully defines in his script what Tyrone is after. It seems Tyrone wants to break up Raymond and Martine. He almost seduces Martine at the end of the film. A blogger named Bruce in a fan letter to Winona writes, “You must’ve been insane to sign on for this maddeningly abstruse drama, underwritten and underdirected by Jay Anania, head of the directing program at NYU’s graduate film school.” Anania had James Franco as a NYU student. Many reviews undercut Anania’s capability as a director and also accuse him of using his pet students to his advantage.
At the end of the film, we find that Winona had been involuntarily subjected to some digested drug from South America that causes delusional brain hallucinations and alters her mind. It appears that Tyrone gave it to Raymond and she somehow ingested it airborne. It is kind of an anti-climactic ending to a slow-moving, action-lacking film. For psychological thrill-seekers and Winona forever fans, it is a must see, if only to solve what the damn 94-minute encounter is about. Forty percent of the film is Winona twiddling her hair with penetrating eyes observing the actors onstage as she continues to re-write their movements and words. Twenty percent of the film is dreamscapes and hallucinations with no definitive outcome. James Franco gets girls but not “the girl.” It appears that Raymond ends up with Anita. Winona is just Winona, creating more mystery and alluding to the fact that you will never know her, onscreen or off. Still, you must keep trying.