Shot Through the Heart” is a segment in which I rant about a story that means the world to me. Each week we’ll go over a film, book, short story, or game that touched me in ways that are hard to put into words without them just turning into word vomit. This week I’m plugging a Cameron Crowe film from 2001. A combination of weirdness and a release in the shadow of 9/11 tore this apart on release, but now that it’s been nearly twenty years I’d like you to all revisit (and discover a love for) Vanilla Sky.
“The little things…there’s nothing bigger, is there?” – David Aames, Vanilla Sky
So I went to college in 2006. It was a small, conservative place that is the reason I’m financially crawling out of a hole, but enough of that. My roommate and I were wandering Wal-Mart late at night and bored out of our skulls. This was an era where we played a game called “$5 Movie Bin.” The concept was that we would all stick our hands into the coffin of unwanted DVDs and rummage around. We’d count down and then all pull one up, the winner being the one holding the best film. My roommate won, but I don’t remember what he even had. All I remember is that I was holding a film I’d heard of and knew nothing about…the 2001 film Vanilla Sky.
There was an era where you could slap the visage of Tom Cruise on a poster and people would flock to the theatre. Director Cameron Crowe was a hot commodity as well, fresh off of Oscar wins for Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. The two had become friends, apparently meeting at Crowe’s home to screen films for one another. Sounds like a good time to me, despite these two being unassailable weirdos. One day Tom Cruise brought over a Spanish film titled Abre los Ojos, directed by Alejandro Amenabar, and the two found a story they both wanted to remake. Cruise doesn’t reference this film much, but Crowe is always happy to talk about his “rock & roll remix” of Amenabar’s film. What these two accomplished is a bizarre and beautiful jumble; at times bold and at times egregious, but always fascinating.
The film is difficult to even explain, but I’ll try. We meet David Aames (Tom Cruise) as he’s living a standard white male dream life. He’s a publishing magnate after inheriting control of his company from his now-dead father, wealthy and living a playboy lifestyle. He’s banging actress/recording artist Juliana Giani (Cameron Diaz) on the regular, openly using her for carefree sex despite being able to see her desperately romantic emotions for him bubbling under the surface. On the night of his 33rd birthday he throws a party at his ritzy New York City apartment that features some silly imagery and cameos from Johnny Galecki and Steven Spielberg. David’s best friend and emotional punching bag, Brian Shelby (Jason Lee) shows up with a manic pixie dream girl that he just met – Sofia Serrano (Penelope Cruz). After one magical night and one horrific morning, David’s life goes awry and the world starts to get weird.
There’s such a strange vibe to this movie, one I couldn’t appreciate had I seen it on release. I was thirteen with parents that wouldn’t have taken me anywhere near a film like this, so instead I saw it several years later without context. It’s a New York film, one that held no meaning to me as I’d never been to the city. One of the major marketing points that I remember from youth was that Crowe and Cruise had shut down Times Square to shoot a scene that was meant to play as surreal. After a trip to the city a few years ago I fulfilled a weird dream I’ve had since seeing this film – I went running through an empty Times Square. The city is always packed, streets exploding with people and vehicles and noise. There is, however, a brief window of full-on emptiness in the streets between about 3:30am-5am. Once I’d seen that and then experienced it empty (I went on a 4am run) it was insane to see that it is indeed surreal to find it empty like that. Yes, you heard me; I did the Tom Cruise run in an empty Times Square because I love this movie so damn much.
Outside of that his film contains just a murderers’ row of actors that I love. Sure, we’ve got Cruise and Cruz, Diaz and Lee, but then we go deeper and get Kurt Russell, Michael Shannon, Timothy Spall, Noah Taylor, Tilda Swinton, Tommy Lee, Conan O’Brien, Ken Leung, and Alicia Witt. Like…holy hell, that’s incredible. The fact that Michael Shannon played a bit part in a 2001 Cameron Crowe surrealist thriller is so wild, but then going down the rest of the cast list just makes me break out into a big ol’ smile. This really is material elevated by the performers, as the script is strong but Crowe’s own inherent weaknesses hurt the final product.
Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, hurts this film like the soundtrack. Not the score, that’s weird and fun. I’m talking about the soundtrack itself. Crowe made a name for himself as “the music guy.” His mixtapes put together for other films, as well as his rock & roll documentaries and writings, have long been a display of how much that is a part of his storytelling elements at a basic level. The soundtrack in Vanilla Sky is full of music I like from artists like Looper, R.E.M., Paul McCartney, and Radiohead. The issue is that there are so many needle drops that they reach Suicide Squad levels of annoying as hell. The only ones that work in their respective moments are “Everything in Its Right Place” by Radiohead, “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys, and “Svefn-g-englar” by Sigur Ros. Outside of that I’m just irritated with the amount of songs mashed together, plopped down in obnoxious spots, and relentlessly shoved in my face.
That doesn’t derail this thing, though! I proudly stand up for the rest of the movie. It’s odd energy comes from a sense of detachment, from watching things that are too good to be true and too horrifying to watch. Nothing encapsulates that like the sequence leading from Sofia’s apartment to the crash. Tom Cruise gets to finally use that movie star persona we love him for, watching him all at once be charming and strong and weak and conflicted. It’s so many things on his face at once and he hasn’t given a performance like that before or since. Cameron Diaz matches his energy with pure, unadulterated desperation and…well…crazy. It’s so electrifying, partially because the music is set aside. Crowe gets caught up in his own bullshit sometimes, but he shows restraint here and just lets everything happen. Diaz is spouting absolutely mad dialogue and making it work, Cruise is playing it with disbelief and horror, and then the scene climaxes in a way that just shakes me to the core every time I watch it. The extras in the background slowly realizing there’s been a crash and running to the scene was a nice touch, and added such a hit of realism in a film that’s about high concept art.
Perhaps my favorite element of this film is where it goes batshit insane and becomes a sci-fi thriller. It’s just so out of left field but makes perfect sense with everything that’s been happening so far. We’ve all had one of those nights, where Noah Taylor keeps coming up to us in a bar and talking about revolutions of the mind, right? No? Okay, well just me then. Still, this is the moment where things go absolutely bugnuts crazy. The moment where he shuts the entire bar up is absolutely terrifying, all of them looking at him with smiles and waiting for permission to continue their evenings. It’s…shit, that’s just scary. Continuing from there into cryogenics, lucid dreaming, and more weird performances just elevates the film from great to incredible. I don’t know if I’ve ever enjoyed Tom Cruise more than when he slowly pulls that freaky mask off of his face to reveal just how destroyed he is, then running around screaming “Tech Support!” while “Good Vibrations” plays over the film. Just…damn.
Look, a lot of people have missed out on Vanilla Sky for years. It was misunderstood during its initial release (though there are legitimate moments to criticize within the film) and that led to so many skipping it. Now, nearly twenty years later, I’m here to stand on a hill and defend the absolute hell out of this movie. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s a favorite of mine and I urge everyone to try it out. You get bonus points for picking it up on Blu-Ray so you can watch the absolutely batshit alternate ending (complete with S.W.A.T. team and a bleeding Michael Shannon). We’re living through an era where the little things are what matter most, and ignoring them leads to destruction. And it’s all about the little things in Vanilla Sky.
Hey, did you mean Kurt Russell*, and not Russell Crowe, yes?
Nevertheless, good, insightful read! I’m 30 and just, barely (tonight) watched the film myself. Based on the title, I truly expected any kind of a romance film, I got… something like that, but definitely NOT what I had thought for all these years.
I did mean Kurt Russell, and I’ll correct that.