Geoffrey Haley, a DP and editor perhaps best known for shooting the floating plastic bag sequence in American Beauty, makes his feature debut with The Last Word, a dark comedy about a man who makes a living writing other people's suicide notes. In dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the film is one of those US independents which relies on the crazy morbid quirks of its concept while jettisoning standard human behaviour or narrative sense.
Enhanced by the star pairing of Wes Bentley, a fine actor who himself broke through in American Beauty nine years ago and is only now enjoying a renaissance, and Winona Ryder, also in renaissance mode, The Last Word is marketable as a DVD and pay-TV title, but its theatrical value is limited. The young adult audiences to whom the film is targeted will find it hard to sustain their interest in a theatre, but might be more forgiving on a small screen.
Bentley plays Evan Merck, a solitary man living in downtown Los Angeles who is running a healthy internet business with his website thelastword.com which offers its clients a month-long collaboration process on an eloquent and poetic suicide note.
He even attends the funerals of his late clients to see if the note is read aloud by the graveside, and at one such event, he meets the sister Charlotte (Ryder) of the deceased and claims in a panic that he went to college with her brother - the first of many lies which he will tell Charlotte.
The two are clearly attracted to each other and, although he is a loner, she persuades him to come on a few dates with her. Before long they are an item, and he is telling her more lies by the week including deceiving her about what he does for a living.
Meanwhile Evan is working on a note with a depressive composer called Abel (Romano) who is coming out of a divorce and determined to end it all. The two become friends and Evan starts to care about him.
As his lies start to unravel his relationship with Charlotte, he is too preoccupied to deal with Abel. Both relationships come to crisis point, leading to a sea change in the lives of all three.
Haley worked on Six Feet Under for five seasons and he evidently hasn't shaken off a fixation on death. But the death in The Last Word is never real as it was in that mordantly clever series. Here Haley portrays suicide as a carefully planned ritual where the soon-to-be departed gush everything about their lives to Evan and leave overly-poetic exit notes to their unsuspecting families. The sun-drenched setting of affluent Los Angeles neighbourhoods only underlines the insincerity of the conceit.
Bentley takes it all seriously, frowning his way through the drama with the same brooding intensity for which he earned his stripes in American Beauty, but it's hard to sympathise with his character's irritating inability to come clean about himself to Charlotte. It's a relief when she finally learns the truth about her boyfriend and a relief that she doesn't forgive him for being so weird
North American distributor
Timothy Wayne Peternel
Director of photography
Kees Van Oostrum