Starring: Bruce Greenwood, Mia Kirshner, Elias Koteas, Don McKellar, Arsinee Khanjian
Rated R for Some Sexuality and Language
People so rarely say what they are really feeling. The truth hurts, and for many, the lie is simply easier to accept. Between the lies we tell ourselves and the truth that we don't want to admit, Atom Egoyan's "Exotica" weaves its hypnotic spell.
Because I do not want to give away any of the plot (it's one of those movies that slowly reveals what it's about), I will say that it's about a strip club called "Exotica," and a group of people who are, directly or indirectly, involved with it. There's Zoe (Khanjian), who runs the place, Eric (Koteas), the DJ, Thomas (McKellar), a shy pet store owner, Francis (Greenwood), a frequent customer, and Christina (Kirshner), "Exotica's" star.
Despite being primarily set at a strip club, "Exotica" isn't about sex. Instead, it's about buried pain and the desperate ways people can try to overcome it. Or failing that, find a way to manage it. In one way or another, all of these characters are deeply hurt by something from their past or by a part of their personality and seek others to assuage it. The results are mixed, and bring them head-on into conflict with each other.
As one can imagine from Atom Egoyan, it's not light entertainment. But it's also not nearly as depressing as it sounds. It's more pensive and provocative. In a way, it's like the movie "Carriers:" we're close enough to be engaged but not enough to be depressed. It's a tricky balance to find, but Egoyan finds the sweet spot.
This is a very literate movie (definitely not a "turn off your brain" kind of film). Too literate, in fact, or close to it. I could see that in lesser hands some portions of the film could seem pretentious. Fortunately, Egoyan knows what he's doing. There's no sheen of "this is the most important movie ever made" to be found here.
It also helps that he has assembled a talented cast of actors. From top to bottom, there isn't a weak link. Bruce Greenwood, famous for playing sleazy characters, hit it big with Egoyan, acting in this and his next film, "The Sweet Hereafter." He skillfully handles the complexities of playing an everyman whose interest in a stripper is emotional rather than sexual. Elias Koteas has little problem playing a jealous, manipulative jerk. Don McKellar is impossible not to sympathize with as the meek man who is in way over his head. And Arsinee Khanjian, the director's wife, is good as Zoe, who takes an observer point of view to the goings on at her club. Interesting note: she didn't use make up to portray a pregnant character in the film; Khanjian was seven months pregnant during filming.
The real star is Mia Kirshner as Christina. She has the most difficult role and walks away with the movie. Christina's personality is beholden to whoever is paying her. She can be the naughty schoolgirl, the seductive stripper, or an ice queen. But yet underneath it all lies a young woman with her own wants and desires. The cast is top-notch, but it's Kirshner that everyone will remember.
That it falls short of a 4/4 is due to the way in which Egoyan tells the story. I like movies that slowly reveal themselves, but the inherent manipulation in telling a story this way, no matter how well it's done, is felt in every frame. And the ending is too ambiguous. This is probably a movie to watch with some friends and then talk about it after.
For those who are up to the challenge, or are simply looking for good filmmaking, "Exotica" is worth checking out.