Life Before Her Eyes, The
United States, 2008
U.S. Release Date:
R (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Uma Thurman, Evan Rachel Wood, Eva Amurri, Gabrielle Brennan, Brett Cullen
Emil Stern, based on the novel by Laura Kasischke
The Life Before Her Eyes is an examination of survivor guilt. It uses as its backdrop a Columbine-like school shooting and flashes back and forth between a girl as she is at the time of the incident and the woman she will be fifteen years later. Director Vadim Perelman is careful in the way he assembles the movie to create some uncertainty about whether the "present" represents the scenes with the girl (flashing forward to her future) or the scenes with the woman (flashing back to her past). However, although events occur in two separate time lines, the screenplay eventually connects them in a way that may not be entirely expected.
Columbine has become a touchstone of modern American society and, like 9/11, filmmakers approach the event (or one inspired by it) with trepidation. In The Life Before Her Eyes, the goal is to explore the impact of an event like this in terms of how it haunts the survivors and the gaps it creates by those who are gone. Cataclysmic incidents like this, no matter how senseless, are impossible to merely "shake off" (as much as society might wish this to happen). Fifteen years after the experience, those who watched it transpire must live with the memories of what happened, the sense of guilt that they escaped, and the echoes of the voices of those who did not. The Life Before Her Eyes is not interested in the school shooting in and of itself (this is not a police procedural) but in the ramifications associated with it.
For Diana (Evan Rachel Wood) and her best friend, Maureen (Eva Amurri), it's just another day in school. The girls duck into the bathroom between classes and that's when the shooting starts. At first, the staccato bursts of gunfire and screams of panic are muffled and distant but, as they grow closer, it becomes clear what's happening. Then, after killing a teacher in the hall, the gunman enters the bathroom and faces Diana and Marueen. They know him; he knows them. Diana pleads with him not to kill "them." He responds that he's only going to shoot one of them. The question is: which one?
Fifteen years later on the anniversary of the tragedy, a now-adult Diana (Uma Thurman) still can't shake the horror of the day. Memories rush back as she drives past the suburban Connecticut high school where it all happened. She is protective - perhaps too protective - of her daughter, Emma (Gabrielle Brennan). And her relationship with her older husband, Paul (Brett Cullen), isn't what she had once imagined it would be. Her life is gradually beginning to unravel and she starts imagining things.
On an emotional level, The Life Before Her Eyes is a little on the clinical side. We observe Diana's pain but don't connect with it. Some of this is because of the manner in which Perelman has elected to compose the movie. The non-chronological approach creates an intellectual puzzle but limits the ability of the audience to relate to the characters. And the marked physical differences between Evan Rachel Wood and Uma Thurman make it a little difficult to accept that both the teenage Diana and the adult Diana are the same individual. Rarely is it not possible to see a 32-year old in her 17-year old self. This might seem like a minor thing but in a movie like this, it gains importance.
Technically, the movie is impressive. Cinematographer Pawel Edelman has composed a series of memorable insert shots that show the details of everyday life we often don't notice. If nothing else, it can be said that The Life Before Her Eyes offers variety for the eyes. Even the most mundane scenes are set up with a sense of confidence and James Horner's score is one of the most subtle and least intrusive he has composed in some time. Perelman understands the importance of technical aptitude; his previous feature, House of Sand and Fog, exhibited strong photographic and musical components.
Of the two timelines, the one featuring the teenage Diana is more involving than the one featuring the adult version. Both lead actresses give fine performances, but Thurman has less material to work with. The adult Diana is more one-dimensional than her younger counterpart. Wood portrays Diana as a girl on the cusp of womanhood who is seeking a change. She's a free-spirit who experiments with drugs and sex but in many ways envies Maureen's simpler, more puritanical lifestyle. The bathroom incident has plainly scarred her and the Diana we meet fifteen years later is a different, less interesting individual. One might wonder why Perelman chose to structure the story in such a seemingly haphazard format. The compelling reason becomes clear late in the proceedings; a strictly linear telling would not have worked and would have muted one of the film's more intriguing aspects. The Life Before Her Eyes is an effective portrayal of the lingering impacts of survivor guilt but, in many ways, it works even better as a portrait of a young woman's life as she approaches a tragedy she does not see coming.