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Rhinocerous Eyes, Trippy

Rhinocerous Eyes is, in short, trippy.

Writer/Director Aaron Woodley clearly has the quirky-Canadian thing down, in a kind of David Lynch-y, Charlie-Kaufman-y way. There's a coming of age story mixed with a heavy dose of surrealism and magic realism exploring the tenuous line between imagination and reality.

Protagonist Chep (Michael Pitt) lives in a prop house - which means the art director and their team had a field day, and the cinematographer makes excellent use of their fine work - supported by the loud and kind owner Bundy (Matt Servitto) and his brothers Hamish (James Allodi who smokes a lot) and Sweets (Victor Ertmanis who appears to have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Tourettes).

Chep is, understandably, a bit weird. Some throw-away exposition between Bundy and Detective Barbara - see below - reveals he was raised by his grandparents who, sadly, died, and was adopted by the prop-house boys at the estate sale.

He appears to be schizophrenic; he hallucinates dolls made of prop odds and ends (the animation is superb) who attempt to guide (or bully) him through difficult interactions with the 'real' world, for which he seems ill-equipped.

Chep is pushed to interact with reality when a) his boss drags him to a Hallowe'en party and b) an attractive art director, Fran, stops in to ask for a seemingly impossible-to-get prop (the titular Rhinocerous eyes. Real ones. She's method, apparently).

Things spiral out of control when Chep, unable to fully distinguish between fantasy and reality, goes to greater and greater lengths to procure the props Fran needs for the film.

An amusingly named detective, Phil Barbara (Gale Harold - remember him from Queer As Folk?), is soon on the case, and immediately suspicious of Chep, though easily distracted in his pursuit.

Visually, the film is amazing - the prop house as setting lends itself to all sorts of eerie, suggestive, subconscious motifs. The few other locations and set pieces, movie sets and doll houses, mirror the worlds-within-worlds dreaminess. This Russian-doll effect also keeps the viewer ever-aware of the film they watch, in a meta kind of way. We're implicated by our own voyeurism.

Woodley keeps his actors all in this surreal mood floating between reality and theatricality. The acting is uniformly great - no one distracts, everyone maintains the touch of the bizarre needed to maintain the suspension of disbelief. Woodley writes enough humour in the script to lighten the discomfort produced by Chep's struggle with his darker side.

Pitt carries the film. His Chep is deeply troubled, creepily so, yet his childlike vulnerability excuses much. Chep could be a truly alienating figure, treading so close as he does to the bounds of what we can accept as inevitable and excusable as audience members.

Servitto, Allodi and Ertmanis are charismatic and delightful buffoons, with brotherly affection and paternal concern for their adopted employee.

Turco and Harold, as possibly the sanest and certainly the most attractive characters, still hold elements of deluded fantasy that links them to Chep's unreality, particularly as they feature as characters in his imaginings.

Turco's Fran is open and friendly, and shows subtle hints of her own slightly eerie fantasy life. Harold 's polite and pragmatic Detective is immensely appealing, as the character with whom the audience most easily identifies - he's baffled as you, yet equally drawn to the delusion,

There is also a parade of bizarre 'real' people whose appearance reminds us of just how thin the line between fantasy and reality really is. Keep an eye out for the hospital orderly, who has the best delivery of a single line.

The film's ending is somewhat problematic, in that I felt it unearned - the rest of the film slides Chep to a much more uncomfortable resolution. While the sentimental part of me appreciates the pulled punch, I can't really believe it.

Rhinocerous Eyes is unusual and a skilled execution of a lot of far-reaching ideas. I appreciated the camera work, art direction, acting and sheer creativity, though I was too uncomfortable to relax and sink entirely into the film.

If you unequivocally love those films that push past the bounds of traditional narrative to unwind psychological labyrinths, this is your bag. If you're in the mood for something challenging, for something that's not going to deliver the expected, check it out.

Rhinocerous Eyes opens March 10


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