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The Letter (2012)

DVD Released: 9/25/2012

All Ratings out of



Extras: No Extras

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 9/28/2012

Movies are considered an art form. Thusly, no matter how bad a movie is, technically, it's a work of art. However, some movies want to be "artsy". What does this mean? I don't know if there's a firm, accepted definition for the term, but I think for most people a movie is "artsy" when it goes out of its way to offer a vague story, abstract images, or unusual acting styles. This may be intentional on the part of the filmmaker, or simply the way the audience views the film -- either way, the aesthetic is risky. Some movies, like the works of David Lynch, can get it right, while others, like The Letter, simply leave the viewer bewildered.

The Letter introduces us to Martine (Winona Ryder), a playwright who is working on a new production. Using a theater-space, she workshops the play with her boyfriend, Raymond (Josh Hamilton), and Anita (Marin Ireland), another actress. Martine has invited Tyrone (James Franco) to join the group. As the rehearsals progress, Martine's behavior begins to change. She finds herself attracted to Tyrone. She begins to suspect that Raymond is taking unnecessary medication. She starts to re-write the play, changing the character's names to those of the corresponding actors and incorporating dialogue from her real life, including arguments which she and Raymond have had. Things begin to happen around Martine which she thinks are inter-related and her grip on reality begins to slip away.

If the above synopsis made any sense or felt as if it presented a cohesive, coherent story, then I didn't do a very good job of describing The Letter. I don't know if we've settled on a definition of "artsy", but no matter what, this movie fits the bill. The vast majority of the movie is accompanied by narration by Ryder, which is done in the past tense. The movie contains long periods of silence. The narration plays at a normal volume, while much of the dialogue is very soft or borderline unintelligible, so that when the narration returns, it's very loud and jarring. Director Jay Anania has shot the film in a verite style, so we are constantly treated to shots which are out of focus, unmotivated zooms, oddly framed close-ups and whip pans. Nearly every scene contains the sound of a truck's brakes. Does this mean something? Given this city location, this is to be expected, but it happens a lot. Is it symbolic or did the sound effects guy get lazy? All of these stylistic choices throw road-blocks in front of the story.

Well, I guess that would have happened if there had been a story. To say that Anania's script is vague would be an understatement. We get very few details here. It's implied that Tyrone was brought in because he's a "known" actor, but this is never substantiated. There's no character development, although Martine is interviewed by a reporter, so I guess that she's done enough in the theater to have established herself. The subplot concerning Martine's suspicion that Raymond is taking too much copper doesn't go very far. The movie is simply a cockeyed mix of scenes of the group rehearsing and scenes of Martine outside of the theater looking worried.

Needless to say, most audiences aren't going to find anything to like in The Letter. I think that this wants to be one of those "AP English" movies where we must approach it from a different angle in order to appreciate it/understand it. One could view the movie as if they were watching someone else's nightmare and this could make it digestible. If the film is attempting to present a descent into madness from the viewpoint of the patient, then it could hold some merit. The changes in volume and focus is actually something which patients with schizophrenia experience, so this could be the case. However, so little actually happens in the movie, I can't realistically see it holding anyone's attention, even the most jaded art-house audience. I would like to say that the acting is good, but the actors are called up on to do so little that it's hard to tell. Ryder looks worried while Franco looks smug and that's about it. The only aspect of The Letter which was the least bit effective was the visual of a doll/mannequin like person which Martine sees. That was truly nightmare fuel! As if this movie weren't enough of a conundrum, the DVD box states "She Thought She Saw A Devil." What does that mean?

The Letter makes workshopping a play look like the worst thing that anyone can do on DVD courtesy of Lionsgate. The film has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. Again, given the style of the film, the transfer is a bit difficult to judge. For the most part, the image is sharp and clear, showing some slight grain at times, but no defects from the source material. The image is somewhat dark at times and the colors are muted. As the focus often changes, the detail of the image suffers and we get mild artifacting. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. As noted above the narration is much louder than the dialogue here. I don't know if that was intentional, but it makes the film difficult to watch, as one is always riding the volume control. That aside, the track does contain some nice stereo effects which are detailed and show good separation. There are also some notable surround sound effects, especially those in the theater when something is happening behind the actors. I didn't note any significant subwoofer action.

The Letter DVD contains no extra features.

Review Copyright 2012 by Mike Long