Mike Cahill’s third feature, Bliss, is a Matrix-esque look at the life of down on his luck Greg Wittle, played by Owen Wilson. Greg is no Neo, though much of the beginning of the movie has a similar feel. A man lost in a world that has beaten him down, who looks for solace beyond everyday life. Greg’s escapism comes from a world he creates through art, which he claims comes to him like a vivid memory.
Greg finds himself in a situation in which he is helpless and easily manipulated, cue Salma Hayek’s Isabel Clemens. Isabel is the de facto Morpheus / Trinity combo, as she is both a love interest and purveyor of information. Early on, doubt is cast on Isabel’s character, who embodies a type of drug-addled clairvoyance that casts more uncertainty than it portrays truth. She claims that Greg’s world is a simulation and that his art is the true world that he is remembering.
A large portion of the movie revolves around Greg spiraling deeper into Isabel’s conspiracies, which it is never clear whether they are delusions or fact. This is when the similarities to the Matrix end. Instead of taking Greg down the rabbit hole, removing him from the simulation immediately, Isabel takes him on a time-warping drug-fueled bender.
It is here where Greg becomes increasingly detached and more susceptible to Isabel’s influence. With emphasis on drug use, crystals, in the case of the film, we are unsure of what is causing Greg’s experiences. Oftentimes, when the simulation appears real it then snaps back to reality, and the inverse is true as well, in the most mundane moments the reality of Greg’s world is questioned.
In Bliss the real world, as presented by Isabel does not function as well as it should, it seems a small part of the film, though arguably the main premise. We spend much of our time in the world Greg knew to be real, or the simulation, as Isabel presents it. A dirty unforgiving world of drugs and homelessness.
We spend a significant amount of time in this world before Greg is allowed to leave the simulation, and when he leaves it doesn’t provide the awe and wonder that film presents. Though the locations are lovely and picturesque, it never truly seems utopian. This could arguably be the point of the film, though, for the amount of time that we wait to see the real world, which is apparently capable of tremendous technologies, it falls a little flat.
Owen Wilson does a tremendous job, you really feel for Greg. You want him to have everything that he has ever wanted, but you also want the best for him, which at times are in direct contradiction. Watching the film I was immediately reminded of Midnight in Paris, where Wilson finds himself transported through time to 1920s Paris.
Wilson seems to draw on some of the same emotions, a lack of attachment to those around him to the sudden amazement in discovering a new world. Wilson can take us along without questioning his belief in the simulation and then instantly bring us back to the harsh heartbreaking reality of everyday life.
Salma Hayek is noteworthy here as well, she pulls off the extraordinary ability to go from homeless sex worker to world-renowned scientist, without breaking a sweat. The only flaw in this is that neither personality exists in the other, it is as though she is playing two completely different parts, rather than two sides of a whole. Both of which are so extreme that it’s not easy to accept the transition. We spend so much time with Isabel as a sporadic wild card, that it is odd to see her as reserved and intentional.
The heart of the film lies in Greg’s daughter Emily, played by Nesta Cooper. Cooper embodies ideas of passive helplessness, and the only true connection Greg has to this world. Emily provides a groundedness, in reality, a tie to the world Greg knew, and a constant reminder of what Greg can lose.
This humanizes a film set in a bizarre dystopian fantasy world, whether real or not. It is Emily’s character that shows us who we want Greg to be. It is through Emily that we are led to one of the most profound endings I have seen in a long time, which fundamentally changes the entirety of the film. It is both heartbreaking and hopeful all at once.
Bliss arrives to Amazon Prime Video on February 5th.
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