The Son of Man (Martin Donovan) and Magdalena (P.J. Harvey) arrive in New York City on New Year's Eve 1999, the final evening of humankind. The duo have arrived to open the Book of Life, found in a locker numbered 666 in the form of a Mac powerbook, to facilitate the coming apocalypse as prophesied in the Book of Revelation and to reveal the names of the few who will be saved from eternal doom. The Son of Man is a fan of NYC and is not completely ready to complete his task. The Devil (Thomas Jay Ryan) sits depressed in a bar and tries to take one more soul before the end.
Hal Hartley's The Book of Life (1998) was seemingly made for European television, runs a little over an hour, and now over a decade removed, its millennium theme lacks an immediacy and possibly some relevancy. But that's okay. Writer and director Hal Hartley is a unique American film maker and a personal favorite. He possesses a sharp wit and an observant critical and satirical pen, and his dialogue, heavily evident in his early films (The Unbelievable Truth (1989); Trust (1990); Surviving Desire (1991); and Simple Men (1992), for example), is delivered by his actors in his signature staccato style. Often his main character(s) is smack in the middle of a life-defining, spiritual dilemma and the dialogue delivered by all of the characters are really monologues delivered in conversational form, as if each character is constantly "thinking aloud" but having someone present to contradict, confirm, make fun of, or relate to the speaker's ideas. Prior to The Book of Life, Hartley directed Henry Fool (1997), which many fans and critics alike consider his most mature and best work. Often when a film maker completes a contrived, meticulous or operatic work (for example, WKW with Chungking Express (1994) after Ashes of Time (1994); Sogo Ishii with Electric Dragon 80, 000 V (2001) after Gojoe (2000); or QT with Death Proof (2007) after his epic two volumes of Kill Bill (2003-04)), he or she will follow it with a more relaxed and looser work (and possibly a lot more fun): a little invigoration for the artistic soul. The Book of Life, appropriately, appears this way.
The inclusion of singer, P.J. Harvey (of whom I'm also a huge fan), as Magdalena, who also provided music within The Book of Life, gives the film a lot of its spark. Although as Magdalena she is a pivotal and essential character to the narrative, Hartley takes the time let Harvey just be. After Donovan and Harvey's characters separate, with the Book of Life in Magdalena's red backpack, she goes to a music store and at a listening kiosk, she dons earphones and sings. The tune that she is singing doesn't match the song playing over the scene as the film's soundtrack, yet Harvey's natural beauty and charisma and incredibly beautiful voice become the viewer's focus. It's a scene which is really non-essential to the narrative but completely essential to the film's energy. When Harvey tells the biblical story, "let those without sin, cast the first stone," it is amazingly endearing (and concluded quite humorously). Beyond its other charm, The Book of Life is worth seeing alone for P.J. Harvey.
My other favorite scenes take place in the bar where "terminally good" Edie (Miho Nikaido) serves drinks to Thomas Jay Ryan's Satan and hapless Dave (Dave Simonds). Ryan's character exposes to Dave Edie's love for him and his own love for Edie. Satan says "try the lottery" to Dave and in exchange for Dave's material wealth, the Devil will take Edie's soul. Edie picks Dave's winning numbers, and how this scenario plays out is extremely fun. Nikaido appears to have a naturally sweet nature which Hartley emphasizes well. Those who enjoyed Ryan in Henry Fool will not be disappointed here: his character (and accompanying performance) is sardonic, self-deprecating, and sharp. Simonds's performance is an excellent final puzzle piece to this trio, and these three characters are terrific.
All is not light, however, in The Book of Life. In a signature scene, Donovan and and Ryan meet to discuss humanity's fate. Although their conversation is played out with humor, a real depth and sensitivity rings true. Donovan, likewise, shares several traditional monologues throughout the film that are also thought-provoking and well-written (and delivered). All of the performances are tops. Hartley really loosens up with his visuals and with digital video, he plays with the colors and the imagery. All in all, The Book of Life is an infectious blend of energy and is worth seeing for those like Hartley, playful and creative.