Vadim Perelman's 2003 directorial debut, House Of Sand And Fog, frequently read as an overreaching attempt to outdo Atom Egoyan at his own dread-fueled, atmosphere-rich cinematic game. Similarly, Perelman's follow-up, The Life Before Her Eyes, finds him clumsily trying to outdo M. Night Shyamalan. His second film doesn't have the heartbreaking visual beauty of his first, but once again, the dread is thick and the atmosphere is so heavy that every simple car ride or bedtime story seems like it's happening on the crumbling edge of a lonely cliff.
That's certainly what Perelman is going for, for reasons that become clear in the final act, but the preceding 85 minutes of setup maintain such a forcefully manipulative, portentous tone that the end is more long-awaited relief than key puzzle piece. Like an episode of Lost, the film leaps back and forth in time, finding nonstop meaningful parallels between two phases of a woman's life. As a teenager (vividly played by Evan Rachel Wood, in one of the film's few bright spots) Life's slightly wild protagonist is determined to express herself personally and sexually, and to escape her boring small town. At the same time, she's insecure and afraid of being judged, particularly by her religious but deeply supportive best friend, Eva Amurri. Fifteen years later, as a brittle adult played by Uma Thurman, she's still in the small town, now with a husband and daughter, and her life revolves around the crippling guilt stemming from a school shooting where she and Amurri faced the gunman together.
Perelman and first-time screenwriter Emil Stern (working from Laura Kasischke's novel) clearly hope their audience will be panting for the big reveal as they dole out tiny slices of the past, saving the key moment for last. But it's hard to maintain interest through the overbearing foreshadowing, the pointlessly repeated footage, James Horner's exhaustingly ominous soundtrack, and the worst use of a professorial lecture to explain a film's psychological underpinnings since Jade. And then there are the oh-so-pointed ways in which Wood's every casual word and deed carries significant ironic weight in her future. Every moment is critically meaningful, Life says, in its facile, simple-minded way. But if that's true, why does it waste so much of its run time on overwrought symbolic music-video footage of dead birds and wilting flowers? Like Wood, viewers may someday regret every squandered moment of their lives, and this film is full of them.