The Daily Stream: Wristcutters: A Love Story Takes A Trip Through Punk Purgatory

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Wristcutters: A Love Story"

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: A content warning for readers, but the following contains discussions of suicide and self-harm.

There's a special purgatory just for anyone who commits suicide, and Zia (Patrick Fugit) ends up wondering if maybe being alive wasn't all that bad. After a bad breakup with Desiree (Leslie Bibb), Zia kills himself by slitting his wrists, and he wakes up in a world that's exactly like our own, except slightly crummier. The colors are all desaturated, there are no stars, and no one can smile. Everyone there died by suicide, and Zia discovers that the afterlife is just as desperately sad as the regular one. Zia manages to make a close friend in Eugene (Shea Whigham), a Russian musician who lives with his parents and brother, all of whom are suicide victims as well. When Zia discovers that Desiree killed herself shortly after his own death, he and Eugene take a road trip across purgatory looking for her. Along the way, they meet a hitchhiker, Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon), who is looking for the people in charge because she believes she is trapped in this limbo by mistake.

Zia, Eugene, and Mikal learn a lot about life, death, and miracles on their road trip, and in the end, the audience does, too. Also, the movie features Tom Waits as an angelic being, and how could anyone not want to see that? 

Why It's Essential Viewing

While the premise sounds pretty depressing, "Wristcutters: A Love Story" is a warm and surprisingly uplifting love story told through unconventional means. The desaturated, bizarre purgatory presented here has its odd charms, including tiny miracles that occur when people aren't paying attention to their misery and a black hole that somehow exists beneath the passenger seat of Eugene's car. It plays like a very dark road trip movie, with the characters repeatedly getting frustrated with one another's motivations and petty nonsense. Eugene takes his flirting way too far, Zia's mooning for his ex is borderline creepy, and Mikal enjoys stealing "no shoplifting" signs and breaking every man-made rule she possibly can. They're each a bit intense in their own way, but somehow they make a charming trio. 

When Mikal performs a minor miracle and fixes the headlights on Eugene's car by pushing a button, they see a man lying in the road and narrowly miss him. They discover that he is a commune leader named Kneller (Waits), and he fell asleep while looking for his dog. Zia finds himself unable to perform any of the minor miracles, which frustrates him to no end. Eugene finally finds a woman who appreciates his overt advances, probably because they don't speak the same language. They stay with Kneller for a while and discover as they're leaving that Kneller's dog was abducted by a rival cult leader called "Messiah King" (Will Arnett). They set off to rescue the dog and discover much, much more than they bargained for at the King's compound. 

As Mikal searches for the people in charge and Zia looks for his lost love, the two start falling for one another. It's a bizarre idea, to fall in love after you're already dead, so both of them try to ignore their feelings. 

It's a fascinating look at how grief changes the way we act, and how people who have lost so much are hesitant to love (and lose) again.

A Wonderfully Weird World

The world-building behind this weirdly punk purgatory is almost as delightful as the characters that inhabit it. There are tons of tiny miracles that happen onscreen, some of which are never pointed out by characters and are just going on in the background. There are also the annoying things that remind the characters that they are in fact dead, like the inability to smile or the complete lack of stars. It's a fascinating world that these characters exist in, and one that never over-explains itself.  

Zia, Eugene, and Mikal are great as the troubled traveling trio, but the many other secondary characters are just as rich. Arnett's "Messiah King" is a hilarious blowhard, Eugene's family is the ultimate Russian quartet, and Nick Offerman plays a police officer who killed himself instead of running into battle in Vietnam. Every single one of them wears their method of suicide in some way, and some denizens even end up making a game out of trying to figure out how newcomers found themselves there. For example, Zia is incredibly pale, as he died from blood loss. In one of the best visual gags of the movie, Offerman removes his police cap to reveal the giant hole left in his head from a gunshot blast. It's pretty macabre humor, but the warmth of the central story balances it out perfectly.

A Soundtrack for the Living

"Wristcutters" not only has a sweet story with a great comedic cast, but it has a killer soundtrack. Gogol Bordello is used throughout the film, though the only track to make it to the official soundtrack is their song "Through the Roof 'n' Underground." Croatian writer and director Goran Dukić is close friends with Gogol's lead singer, Eugene Hütz, and he was part of the inspiration for Eugene. Waits also appears on the soundtrack with the song "Dead and Lovely," while Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" features in an early scene. 

The score was written by Bobby Johnston, and it marries Gogol Bordello's Romani punk influences with bubbly, unusual sounds to create a wholly original punk soundtrack that manages to be both upbeat and bittersweet, much like the movie itself. So if you want to hum along on your couch while enjoying one of the most heartwarming pitch-black comedies to ever exist, make sure to check out "Wristcutters: A Love Story."