Film Torments: Dead Awake (2001)

THIS TIME on Torments, Dan looks at a forgotten Baldwin brother vehicle.

I’m unsure whether or not I dreamed this movie. I’ve looked online – here’s the four sentence-long Wikipedia article – and it categorically, absolutely does exist. I’m still not convinced. I remember drinking, screaming “WHAT” at the screen and possibly falling off my chair into a crumpled heap, massaging my brain and grappling with several ultimate questions. All I knew for sure was that it starred Stephen Baldwin, the youngest and kookiest of the Baldwin dynasty.

These days, our Stephen is better known for his street-smart evangelism and outspoken support of Donald Trump than his filmography; he’s more likely to crop up in a Pureflix hit than a Bryan Singer masterpiece, let’s put it that way. Pre-9/11, however, before Stephen found his way to God, he starred in a string of largely independent sleeper duds (and high-profile, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas duds), culminating in 2001’s Dead Awake, a labyrinthine cavalcade of turn-of-the-millennium film-making clichés and inexplicable narrative somersaults.

Dead Awake is a little like Memento crossed with Jackie Brown, if both films in their original forms were incomprehensible gibberish mangled into a chronologically-distorted wave of metaphysical bullshit. Baldwin is Desmond Caine, an insomniac office worker/advertising hotshot/serial fantasist who wanders through life unthinking, unblinking, sleepless and mumbling. He, through a mixture of neo-noir contrivance, bad luck and coincidences (but mainly contrivance), winds up embroiled in a stew of crime and intrigue that has the pleasing side effect of sending both him and the audience to sleep.

Dead Awake cribs from a lot of films, especially those among the neo-noir revival, but Fight Club is the most obvious comparison to make. Both films feature a somnambulist protagonist and teeter on the cusp of sleep and sleeplessness. Both evoke a woozy surrealism within a shifting, uncertain reality. Both have an amorphous timeline, full of fourth-wall breaking interjections from its characters. Both attempt, to opposing degrees of success, in deconstructing a central tenet of modern thought. Fight Club tears apart the modern conception of masculinity and its ultimate toxicity (and ironically became a rallying cry for “oppressed” males everywhere); Dead Awake looks at how fucking boring and soulless it is to be an office worker, I guess.

Its ethos is, dare I say it, less grounded than Fight Club’s. It’s not sure which specific aspect of millennial angst to latch onto, so it latches onto all of them. If you’ve listened to OK Computer; if you’ve watched a self-aware Tarantino rip-off; hell, if you’ve watched old, scratchy NWO promos with Hollywood Hogan, you’ve witnessed the aesthetic that Dead Awake strives for. Railing against the corporate system, disaffected narration, lens trickery, constant freeze frames that may as well have a record scratch – this is a frustratingly derivative picture that only serves to remind you of better work.

Director Marc Grenier knows how to frame a shot to make an off-kilter atmosphere – mainly Dutch angles – and the pallet is suitably washed out and lifeless to reflect the mundanity of Desmond’s day-to-day existence, but he never adds depth or colour to this fundamental cinematic language. As the time-jumping piles up and the narrative gets stranger, there’s never a sense of escalation behind the camera to match the on-screen spiral. Since the plot is uninvolving and obtuse, the film needed a style that wasn’t just indebted to every other film that came out in the 90s.

Here’s some more Ironside. Because.

The performances aren’t much to shout about either. Granted, the script doesn’t really permit the actors much room to manoeuvre – with a tiring, 90s-fuelled obsession with verbose nobodies masquerading as prophets with deep social awareness – but it’s largely bare bones stuff that usually, often inevitably, devolves into shouting matches. Macha Grenon tries with her “legally blind” W.D., a coffee shop worker with comical eyeglasses, to inject some sense of life into the film, and the ever-reliable Michael Ironside is pure joy as a sage hobo. Ironside is never anything less than great, and this is living proof.

Baldwin, meanwhile, sleepwalks through the film, delivering his lines in the same, precise monotone, narration or otherwise, never changing his expression from lockjawed indifference. In fairness to Baldwin, it’s an appropriate choice given the character, and I wouldn’t call it a bad performance, but it’s not really a performance at all in any traditional sense. It’s not engaging either; he’s William Holden in Sunset Boulevard if Holden didn’t have a personality. He’s a placeholder that could have been played by literally anyone.

That’s the larger problem with Dead Awake: It’s an identikit film that could have been directed by anyone, written by anyone and starring anyone. It’s a hodgepodge of pop-culture references, aesthetic clichés and narrative conceits that had been better employed in countless other artefacts of the 90s. Maybe – and this is a big maybe – in the hands of a more skilled team, this could have been something more than a direct-to-video neo-noir Ditto. As it is, however, it’s a film out of time, out of place and, barely five minutes after watching it, out of mind.

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