Imaginary Crimes

(Anthony Drazan, USA, 1994)


The principles governing the release of movies into the Australian market remain an arcane mystery to most critics. It happens, at least once every few months, that a strong, important film shoots through cinemas in a single week with scarcely any promotion. It may have flopped in the American market; it could be slated for immediate video release; it might have been acquired as part of a package deal.

Whatever the circumstance, Imaginary Crimes is the latest sorry victim of this system. It is the second film from noted young director Anthony Drazan (Zebrahead, 1992), an intimate, often stinging family portrait in the vein of Diane Keaton’s Unstrung Heroes (1995).

As in that film, there is a mother who dies of cancer, a father who is an incurable dreamer, and children who weather the turbulence of the family’s changing fortunes.

The story is conjured from the memories and stories of teenage Sonya (Fairuza Balk), a budding writer. Her father Ray (Harvey Keitel) is the focus of her ambivalent emotions. There is a decent, loving, persevering side to Ray. But there is also an intolerant, deceptive, hopelessly unrealistic side.

Few films have so touchingly portrayed such a man – adorable and impossible in equal measure – without recourse to the special pleading of maudlin pathos.

Imaginary Crimes is a surprisingly tender and unsensational film. Ray is not a violent man, and even his patriarchal, repressive tendencies can bend in the face of Sonya’s righteous fury. And although the business dealings that make life so hard for his family are rather shady, Ray instinctively draws the line at outright fraud. Keitel – in many respects an unusual casting choice – superbly conveys the complex shadings of this sad, doomed character.

Drazan’s approach to this material, like Keaton’s in Unstrung Heroes, is classical and patient. This is not a show-off, gregariously stylised piece like so many from the current generation of American filmmakers.

Drazan concentrates on his actors – beautifully blended into a soulful ensemble – and on the emotional tenor of each small cataclysm in his characters’ lives. An enigmatic episode (rendered in black and white) in which Sonya’s younger sister Greta (Elisabeth Moss) becomes deaf and mute for a period of months will haunt me for a long, long time to come.

© Adrian Martin May 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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