(NOTE: My apologies if these screencaps are too dark. They looked fine on my home screen, but I can barely make out some of the images on my work screen.)
Equinox is another Alan Rudolph film that on a first viewing I had some problems with, and problems similar to the ones I had with my first viewing of Love at Large (1990). I see that I’m not the only one: James Berardinelli, in a 1993 review of the theatrical release, complains,
The characters are all weird. Not “weird” in a delightful, quirky sense, but in a manner that’s irritating. There’s no one to relate to since writer/director Alan Rudolph doesn’t attempt to make any of his principals accessible to the audience. … Even if the viewer chooses to look at Equinox as a straight spoof, it still doesn’t work, although many of the worst scenes are less embarrassing. Analyzing the film from that point-of-view makes it apparent how little of it gels. If it’s meant to be a satire, why are there so many dry, straight scenes?
That was my initial feeling too. Again, it felt like Rudolph was switching tonal and genre gears in awkward ways, and the characters often seemed like caricatures. But as with Love at Large, a second viewing helped a lot. The artificiality begins to make a lot more sense. It becomes apparent that this is a very intricate, carefully balanced work, befitting its title. There are still aspects of it that elude me.
Rudolph’s great preoccupation is love and lust and romantic confusion, and this film has a very different take on it from his others, if only in focus or angle. Henry is an introvert who has a hard time relating to women. He’s almost in a relationship with his best friend’s sister, Beverly (Lara Flynn Boyle), but they are both so damaged (she is repressed and dissociative, sometimes referring to herself in the third person) that their natural attraction to each other isn’t quite enough to bring them together. Meanwhile, Henry’s prostitute neighbor, Rosie (Marisa Tomei) starts to use him as a babysitter in exchange for sexual favors. Henry confuses this with love. As for Freddy Ace, he’s married to the beautiful Sharon (Lori Singer, who played the innocent in Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind) — the mother of his angelic twin girls. Sharon is yet another highly artificial character who does nothing but feed Freddy’s troubled ego: “You’re the best, honey. You’re perfect,” she coos. They live in a dream house that’s the picture of a consumerist fantasy life. There doesn’t seem to be anything real in their relationship or their lives.
There’s another layer on top of all this. A writer named Sonya (Tyra Ferrell) has discovered (stolen, really) a letter from the dead mother of the boys revealing the secret of their parentage. (The father was a European aristocrat, the mother was a ballerina who lost her mind when she found out her lover secretly had another family.) Sonya senses a book in the making, and she begins to investigate the fate of the boys. She discovers that the father had set up a trust fund for them years ago that is now worth millions of dollars. She is able to find Henry’s adoption papers, but Freddy Ace remains invisible to her, because he grew up on the streets.
Is Sonya the author of Equinox? That is one of the many subtle possibilities that hovers over this ambiguous film. There are layers of irony that are equally subtle. Freddy Ace hates his life as a gangster, and all he needs to escape, he says, is a million dollars and a tank full of gas. Little does he know that his million dollars is right within his reach. Neither Freddy Ace nor Henry ever learn that they have a twin brother. That’s one reason this plays like a doppelganger movie, because they mostly just revolve around each other like mirror images without interacting as humans and brothers. Sonya is the only one who really knows the whole truth, or at least more of it than anyone else. The ending feels apocalyptic. The hidden truth expresses itself in the most rending way. It creates not a closure but an enormous fissure, which is visualized symbolically. Perhaps the symbolism is too obvious, in fact, but both times I’ve watched the ending, it feels like a slingshot. We are propelled into a void and left hanging in mid-air.
Even the first time I watched it, the ending seemed almost to redeem the frustrations of everything that had preceded it. It’s a sign to me — even more apparent the second time through — that Rudolph’s elusive design really is capturing a hidden pattern. It’s pulling together meaning on a non-verbal level, perhaps. Throughout the movie we see twins everywhere. Possibly the different characters all mirror each other — the two women who Henry has had sex with, the two characters who die because of actions of the twins, Henry’s sweet and lunatic foster father (played by M. Emmett Walsh with hamminess turned to 11) and Freddy Ace’s asshole boss, Freddy Ace and the various gangsters he threatens to replace, including Dandridge, who’s the one who describes what an equinox is.
There’s a lot going on in this film. I haven’t even mentioned the poetry by Emily Dickinson that the lonely, bookish Beverly reads aloud to herself and that I still really haven’t made out. Nor have I mentioned the visual qualities of the film, which are once again in a stylish film noir vein. I think it really does suffer from some tonal contradictions, but I also don’t think I’ve fully plumbed its depths yet. I’ll be no doubt watching this one yet again — and on Netflix Instant, because it’s never been released on DVD in the US. I can see that a lot of people would find this a difficult movie, but it’s a must see for Rudolph fans.