River Phoenix’s last film finally emerges twenty years later

Mark Deming
Movie Talk
River Phoenix in 'Dark Blood'
River Phoenix in 'Dark Blood'

River Phoenix was one of the most promising actors of his generation, growing from challenging juvenile roles in "Stand By Me" to acclaimed adult performances in "My Own Private Idaho" and "Running on Empty," when he died unexpectedly in 1993 at the age of 23. Now the film he was working on at the time of his death is finally seeing the light of day.

"Dark Blood," directed by Dutch filmmaker George Sluizer (best known for his film "The Vanishing"), was ten days short of the end of shooting when Phoenix died as the result of a drug overdose on October 31, 1993. Nearly twenty years later, Sluizer has completed the film, using still photos and voice-overs to fill in the gaps left by his absent star. "Dark Blood" was screened this week at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival, receiving enthusiastic notices and bringing a close to an unfinished chapter in Phoenix's career.

Sluizer has said his own brush with death prompted him to complete the movie. "A few years ago, I had an aneurysm and was told I was going to die quite quickly," Sluizer told a BBC reporter. "I said, well I want to finish the film and to leave not a garbage bag of film, but something decent. And that's what I did in 2011, and the post-production until today. I did my best - with the material I had - to make it an understandable and plausible story. Apparently people say it works."

In "Dark Blood," Phoenix plays Boy, a twenty-something man of Native American heritage who has fallen into emotional instability following the death of his wife. He's moved to a desert community that was once used for nuclear weapons testing when he encounters Harry and Buffy, a couple trying to put the spark back in their marriage, played by Jonathan Pryce and Judy Davis. Boy offers to help Harry and Buffy fix their luxury car, which has broken down in the desert, but he soon begins displaying a threatening dominance over the strangers, and an attraction grows between Boy and Buffy.

Sluizer's project was a difficult one on several levels. The director says he was only 80 percent done with filming, with key scenes throughout the picture left to be shot. In addition, after Phoenix died, the insurance company who held the movie's completion bond seized the footage, and getting it back proved to be a difficult process; Sluizer and his cinematographer Edward Lachmann insist they still haven't recovered a few sequences that were shot for the film.

For the new version of "Dark Blood," Sluizer narrates a few scenes that could not be constructed using his surviving footage, and photos also help fill the gaps. Prior to the Berlin screening, Sluizer called the film in it's current form "a chair with three legs," adding "the fourth leg will always be missing but the chair will be able to stand upright." Critic Jordan Mintzer called the movie, "(B)oth an homage to Phoenix's talent and a love letter to a movie that never was."

River Phoenix's family (including his brother Joaquin Phoenix) has issued a statement saying that they did not and will not take part in the effort to complete "Dark Blood." Sluizer, however, insists the late actor's mother has given the project her blessings. "Dark Blood" will receive its American premiere at the Miami International Film Festival on March 6.