“…I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going. I have to come from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”
—J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Stranger than Fiction!!! That’s one of those lines one always hopes to get a chance to use somewhere. It certainly applies to this month’s film. Not in the way you might think, however. As good as this tale of Siamese twins may be, and as strange, Twin Falls Idaho (1999) must pale before the real-life drama of the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker. Had anyone been making documentaries back in the mid-1800s, a biography of the Bunkers could have been one of the great ones. Perhaps one reason for the very effective understatement of Twin Falls Idaho is that its creators knew that they weren’t going to top the Bunker brothers’ story on its own terms: born in Siam (Thailand) in 1811, featured in P.T. Barnum’s circus, touring the world and often at odds with it (and with one another), marrying two English sisters in 1864, settling and farming in North Carolina, fathering 22 children between them, and dying within three hours of each other in 1874. Twin Falls Idaho tells a less epic tale that nevertheless gives the viewer insight into an intimacy that must transcend any other.
The work of real-life identical twin brothers, Michael and Mark Polish, it’s not surprising that their first feature film should demonstrate a subtle understanding of the bonds conjoining its central characters—25-year-old Siamese twins Francis and Blake Falls. Francis and Blake (played by Michael and Mark Polish) have come to a nameless city for reasons that remain vague. They might be searching for their birthmother, who gave them up for adoption because she couldn’t deal with their condition. Or perhaps they’ve come because they simply want an anonymous place to die—Francis is ill and his death (barring surgery to separate the twins) would be his brother’s also. With their brown suits, ties, angular faces and quiet demeanor, one reviewer described the Falls brothers as “gravely exotic.” That’s perfect.
They’ve gone to ground in the archetypically seedy Imperial Hotel. It’s the kind of place where one might expect to find dying Siamese twins. It’s next door is a mini-gospel mission led by a preacher named Jesus, the elevators don’t quite stop level with the floors; and the peepholes in the doors would look at home in one of Franz Kafka’s nightmares. Everything is shot in tones of blue and gray and brown, giving the early part of the picture an Edward Hopper after-hours look. It’s closing time for everybody. (Later in the film, Michael Polish, who directs as well as stars, will change colors and light intensity to match the changes in his characters’ lives.)
Into this somber setting comes a young woman named Penny. She looks like a down-on-her-luck Goth, with enough dark eyeliner to black out a small village. Penny is a part-time model, part-time prostitute. Blake Falls has invited her up to Room 7b as either a special 25th birthday present for Francis and/or a last hurrah before dying. First seeing only Francis’s head peeking around the bathroom door, Penny is perfectly at her ease. When the second head pops into sight, she runs. As Blake says, it’s a reaction that the ex-sideshow siblings more or less expect of people who don’t buy tickets. If this were a David Cronenberg or David Lynch movie, things would slalom downhill from here.
The Polish brothers are kinder.
Penny accidentally leaves her purse behind and has to return for it. She’s had some time to get over her initial shock and, when she discovers that Francis is ill, compassion overrides squeamishness. The more involved Penny becomes with the brothers’ lives, the closer she draws to them. She herself, when younger, had given a mentally-challenged child up for adoption. Caring for these twins in search of their mother goes a long way towards correcting a life out of balance.
Stories about call-girls-with-hearts-of-gold and Siamese twins are dicey affairs. The former is an overdone genre unto itself, the latter risks foundering in freakishness. The first question someone asked me when I mentioned the plot of Twin Falls was, “Is it cheesy?” It isn’t. There are a couple of minor characters (the preacher next door; the twins’ mother) who might better have ended up on the cutting room floor, and some overly-obvious symbolism involving one and twos, but the performances of the Polish brothers and Michele Hicks as Penny more than make up for any minor faults. I also enjoyed Patrick Bauchau as a doctor without illusions, and Jay Gries as a sleazy commercial agent who whose idea of Taoist yin/yang is “You give a little show, you take a little dough.”
A good thing about being a beginning filmmaker (this is the Polish brothers’ first film) is that you’re forced to rely more on acting than on paying for special effects. What’s fascinating about the Falls twins is not their biological uniqueness, but the psychological intimacy that’s developed because of it. Constantly whispering in one another’s ears, Blake and Francis make visible the interior monologues the rest of us conceal. Perhaps because they themselves are twins, Mark and Michael seem totally at ease in portraying a psychological and physical closeness that might seem unconvincing or disturbing in less gifted hands. As children, the Polish brothers shared their own private language. Their fascination with Siamese twins dates back to grade school. Through moments of humor, despair, jealousy, and pathos, I was utterly convinced of the integrity of the Falls’ relationship. There are astonishingly gentle interludes as one twin comforts the other, as one head lies asleep while the other speaks to Penny. There is also a less gentle moment when jealousy sets them against one another in an indescribable jumble of flailing hands and legs. In its own way, Blake and Francis’s life is the most profound of marriages.
Michele Hicks also acquits herself well in her first foray from modeling into acting. It’s a tricky thing playing in a love story where girl meets boy/boy. Hicks projects a convincing air of toughness, vulnerability, empathy, and yearning for a saner life. What is thankfully lacking is desperation. We get the sense that in linking her life to that of the Falls brothers, she’s making real choices. Too much of her previous life has been a shallow drifting. Michele Hicks’s makeup and dress throughout the film deliberately counterpoint her psychological growth. This is one of the many directorial touches (another is the change in palette and lighting mentioned earlier) Michael Polish unabashedly uses to reinforce his narrative.
The closing scenes of Twin Falls Idaho somehow reminded me of Catcher in the Rye. There’s a dream sequence where the twins, now separated and saying farewell, are riding their bikes near ragged cliffs by the Oceanside. They’re like the children Holden Caulfield must keep from falling. Later, when Penny crosses the field of a circus camp to find Blake, it’s as if she’s on Holden’s mission to catch a lost soul before it falls into darkness.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Once again, I’m dealing here with a film whose content has been wiped from my memory, and which, for the moment, is available neither in my own film library nor through my usual online sources. Amazon.ca wants $97 for the VHS tape of Twin Falls Idaho. Yeah, right. I knew I should have made an offer when our local video store was going out of business. I didn’t, so this review page remains sadly incomplete. Stay tuned.