Twixt is Francis Ford Coppola’s last film to date, but it barely feels realised as a film – more a strange, stillborn epilogue to his career. While it’s part of the same loose trilogy as Youth Without Youth and Tetro – all three films focus on frustrated authors – Coppola seems to have exhausted some of his late career pretension by this point, contenting himself to craft a genre film for the first time since The Rainmaker in 1997. In this case, the genre is horror, and revolves around a horror writer, Hall Baltimore, played by Val Kilmer, who travels to a small American town for a book signing. When he meets Sheriff Bobby LaGrange, played by Bruce Dern, Hall decides to break out of his recent rut of witch novels and compose something original – especially once the town starts to work its supernatural magic on him through a series of surreal dream sequences. As Hall himself notes, his whole experience recalls Stephen King’s small-town narratives – The Shining meets Misery – and the film as a whole is especially redolent of King’s more recent work, which tends to creatively fuse horror with other genres.
Luckily, Twixt is the first of Coppola’s latest films to have any real charisma or narrative drive, thanks in part to Kilmer and Dern, who put in two of the most animated performances in their recent careers. Coppola’s style is still pretty heavy-handed, but that works better with horror, especially because he doesn’t aspire to high-concept horror during the first act, allowing himself and the audience to simply recline on the evocative images of Hall’s dream sequences. At its best, these nocturnal visions exude the simplicity and elegance of a fairy tale, a ghost story, or a work by Edgar Allen Poe, who actually becomes a major figure in the second act.
The strongest sequences here tend to be the blue-tinted night scenes, which are positioned halfway between the dreamy style of Youth Without Youth and the neon phantasmagoria of One From the Heart. This pervasive bluescape produces some genuinely great images and moments, while presaging the cool lighting schemes of Mike Flanagan’s 10s output, especially the more expository sections of The Haunting of Hill House. These blue-tinted spaces are the “twixt” of the title – a strange netherworld between sleep and waking life, featuring some beautiful digital cinematography. Here, Hall meets his muse – V, the ghost of a young girl, played by Elle Fanning, who introduces him to a horrific historic crime committed in the town.
As in Youth Without Youth and Tetro, Hall is still a solipsistic protagonist, but Coppola gets around that solipsism here, with the first sustained use of split screens in his entire career. Gone are the endless conversations between Dominic Matei and his double, and Tetro and himself – instead, Hall is nearly always on one side of a split screen, compensating for the fact that he has virtually no physical interactions with other people. Apart from his long conversations with Sheriff LaGrange, he communicates with everyone in the film via Skype, or in dreams, which gives Twixt as a whole an oddly ethereal, disembodied quality, as if all the characters are floating just above the world they supposedly inhabit. This also makes Hall’s conversations with Sheriff LaGrange feel peculiarly uncanny, just because they’re the only interactions that are taking place in what we’d usually think of as realistic space and time.
For all those reasons, the first part of Twixt gradually moves away from the tortured “writerly” style of both Youth Without Youth and Tetro, despite the fact that Twixt contains the most sustained depictions of writing in Coppola’s late catalogue. Like a classic Stephen King protagonist, Hall spends great swathes of the story at his desk, in the midst of writer’s block, although even these scenes are deflected back onto Coppola’s dreamscapes. Since Hall sees excessive embellishments as “fog on the lake” of his writing, his editing often segues into the same otherworldly vistas as his nocturnal visions, making it quite difficult to tell when he is dreaming or writing. In one of the oddest scenes, Hall rotates between a series of different voices for his character – white, black, gay, straight – culminating with what appears to be a parody of Marlon Brando in The Godfather. During this sequence, which also happens to be the most sustained Skype sequence, Coppola seems to be dreaming back upon his own career, and reflecting on how his various authorial and auteurist voices produced his present.
At the same time, by exhausting his own voice through a Skype camera, Coppola also seems to be glimpsing a post-cinematic aesthetic here. To some extent, he retreats from this post-cinematic possibility over the second half of the film, doubling down on his “writerly” auteurist style by introducing Edgar Allan Poe, played by Ben Chaplin, as Hall’s main confidant and interlocutor. In a series of increasingly absurd scenes, Poe joins V to guide Hall through the history of the town, as Hall looks to Poe for a way to satisfactorily conclude his new novel.
Yet while this second half may be writerly, it is also less wordy than either Youth Without Youth or Tetro. In fact, this part of Twixt is almost entirely free-form and impressionistic, so reliant on digital cinematography that it’s effectively an animated film. As in Tetro, Coppola returns to the same “cool” style that he deployed after Apocalypse Now, except that this style is more interesting and beautiful here, rather than impoverished and denuded as it was in Tetro. In part, that’s because Coppola’s imagery becomes more lurid and surreal, culminating with a teenager vampire subculture that hangs out at the town lake, and also because Coppola is even more painterly here, dabbing flecks of vivid colour across his sombre scenes.
As the dialogue drops away entirely, Coppola eventually returns to the language of silent cinema, reaching back to the earliest days of film media to conceputalise the digital changes that ripple across these scenes. It’s the same gesture that Martin Scorsese made in Hugo, but arguably more interesting here, because the gap between analog and digital sensibilities remains incomplete. Whereas you can see traces of Scorsese’s classic films in the stately sightlines of Hugo, it’s almost inconceivable that these late images in Twixt come from the creator of The Godfather, so radically has Coppola been alienated from his earlier signature.
This aesthetic of alterity climaxes with a scene that so incoherent and overstylised that it’s almost unwatchable – but just as fascinating for Coppola’s studied refusal, or inability, to complete a seamless digital transformation of his earliest work. At the heart of that incommensurability and impossibility, Hall discovers his ending, which also happens to be the first and last direct depiction Coppola has ever made of his son Gian-Carlo’s death. For his entire career, that trauma lay beyond the realm of cinema, so it feels right that it gestures towards the post-cinematic here, as Coppola bookends his career with horror – with a film that, like Dementia 13, ultimately feels like the start of something, even if it’s his final work.