“Big Bad Love” is one of those films that drips off of the screen and slowly washes over the audience. Some feel overwhelmed and resist while others greet the immersion happily. The film spends its one hour and fifty minutes exploring the mind of Leon Barlow (Arliss Howard, “Natural Born Killers”). Every sunny room and dark corner is traversed. The travel is well worth the effort, though, as the landscape is funny, tragic and rich.
Barlow is a chain-smoking alcoholic who is desperately trying to conjure fiction from the shambles of his life. He is in still in love with his ex-wife (Debra Winger, “Urban Cowboy”) but powerless to act on it. He is tormented by a desire to write but powerless to realize it. He is slowly being destroyed by alcohol but powerless to overcome his addiction. His dreams ebb and flow through his reality like an ever-present tide. It is impossible to tell which is which as the line between them is non-existent. This is the way the world looks through Barlow?s eyes and that?s the only reality that matters.
Howard adapted the screenplay from a collection of short stories by Mississippi writer Larry Brown. The result is a script that is sharp as well as literary. Dialogue often mixes with prose, a fitting soundscape for the mind of a writer.
Howard also directs and stars in the film. He sometimes allows the film get complicated with a barrage of visuals and sounds but wisely knows when to let the wave break. These moments of chaos are tempered by languid and sparse interchanges. The result is an unsettlingly real environment that unfolds so tangibly you feel as if you could reach out and grab it.
In addition to the eye and ear candy, “Big Bad Love” also showcases a number of incredibly impressive acting performances.
Often falling-down drunk and chipping away at the foundation of his life and those around him, Barlow is not a lovable character. He is not supposed to be. Howard masterfully seesaws his character?s persona between tragic and triumphant.
Meanwhile, Debra Winger single handedly redefines the cinematic depiction of ex-wives. Her Marilyn is strong and conflicted, and she commands the screen in each of her appearances.
Paul Le Mat (“American Graffiti”) and Rosanna Arquette (“Desperately Seeking Susan”) also turn in multi-layered supporting performances.
In the end, “Big Bad Love” is as innovative as it is haunting. It will no doubt seduce some and alienate others, but there?s something to be said for a film that lets you dream without sleeping.