Outside Tinseltown, not everyone may be aware of the Hollywood Forever cemetery, which specializes in memorializing lives via a process the franchise owners call "LifeStories." The century-old former Hollywood Memorial Park, retooled for the new millennium, presents carefully edited video montages of the lives of celebrities (from Rudolph Valentino to Dee Dee Ramone), as well as normal people, as part of its permanent archive among its many graves and mausoleums. Take this reality mere baby steps into science fiction, and you've got The Final Cut, a satisfyingly eerie thriller concerned with the moral implications of recording entire lives and what those lives ultimately mean once they're edited down into sweet, bowdlerized, easily digested movies.
Our leading man is Robin Williams, in fine form, nicely chilled-out and lifetimes away from Hook and Flubber. Playing an editor or "cutter" slyly named Alan Hakman, the man hacks up whole lives, from womb to tomb, so that a "Rememory" movie of the recently deceased may be screened for loved ones at their memorial service. Meticulous and unerringly discreet -- he carefully deletes ghastly domestic violence and plenty more -- Hakman is considered the best in the burgeoning business. He works for its vanguard corporation, Zoë Tech, which plants undetectable, organic memory chips into the children of status-driven elitists who can afford the controversial obsession. Basically it's like having one's every experience captured at all times. Basically, for a lot of people, it's like today.
This technological conceit could have engendered comedy, farce, horror, exploitation or any combination thereof, but young first-time feature director Omar Naïm chooses to deliver his smartly layered original screenplay as a stirring, feature-length Twilight Zone episode. We don't know what city we're in, or even what decade, but we know it's chilly and strange there, as human behavior and its consequences are recorded in precise detail -- in their entirety -- for posterity. From Blowup to The Conversation to The Truman Show and Ed TV, there are a lot of movies about the inherent subjectivity of recording real life, but Naïm -- aided by technical legends such as cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (The Silence of the Lambs) and editor Dede Allen (Slaughterhouse Five) -- puts a uniquely haunting spin on his weird world.
The crux is that Hakman, via his cool supervisor (Mimi Kuzyk) and her punchy assistant (Thom Bishops), has taken on a new assignment, a breakthrough that involves viewing and cutting the life of a very corrupt Zoë Tech executive. The honcho's crass wife (Stephanie Romanov) and especially his disturbed little daughter (Genevieve Buechner) offer their perceptions and insights to Hakman, forming some of the movie's most poignant scenes (watching the girl drone a sanitized, pre-scripted appraisal of Daddy is quite moving). The covetable memory disc also draws in Jesus Himself, Jim Caviezel, as a former cutting colleague of Hakman's who's now bent on fouling the corporation's reputation. He's not alone, given that bands of mysteriously tattooed protesters violently oppose humanity being whored into nonstop Candid Camera.
One of the film's strongest suits is that it takes a shopworn Hollywood paradigm -- possibly the Hollywood paradigm -- and refreshes it. Hakman is the quintessential Outsider Who Wants In, a role that shouldn't be too alien for Mork from Ork, Garp and the Bicentennial Man, but which Williams gives loads of subtle nuances, making him a logical evolution of Sy "the photo guy" from the equally impressive One Hour Photo. Like Sy -- and possibly like some comics who have sped along on drugs for too long -- Hakman is a detached observer with no concept of his own identity, relying on images of others to inject his life with meaning. He is warmed here, gradually, by his girlfriend Delila (Mira Sorvino) -- who, in a brilliant turn of character development, runs a used-book store: one of the last bastions of civilized, delicate, pre-digital humanity. But even with her, he can't comprehend living without obsessing, cutting, processing.
It's also telling that Hakman considers himself a "sin-eater," a medieval mantel he associates with his self-appointed mission to cleanse the souls of those he edits.
Naïm's movie is filled with smart writing, subtle character tics and genuine tension, though its bombast does prompt a few eye-rolls. There's a crucial subplot involving Hakman as a pudgy, guilt-ridden nine-year-old who eats his own scabs. It launches well, with much the same feeling of young man's angst that propelled The Butterfly Effect beyond mediocrity earlier this year. Then, like that film (and like a young man), The Final Cut takes itself so seriously that it flounders into absurdity without realizing it.
For the most part, though, the project takes the common filmmaking skill of editing -- right down to dedicated time-code on users' memories -- and turns it into an intriguing metaphor for malleable modern identity: How much judicious omission equals a higher truth? Socrates suggested that the unexamined life is not worth living, but what would he have thought of the exhaustively logged, 100 percent viewable life? One wonders, if he were around in Hakman's world -- or even today in a virtual-reality boneyard -- might he edit his notion to include the innate joy and release of unexamined living?