Bad movie lovers, rejoice -- your prayers have been answered. Here is a craptacular bonanza the likes of which hasn't been seen since Howard the Duck. Actually, this film climbs to even dizzier heights than that one, climbing and climbing until it reaches the outer troposphere of good-badness. Rarely have I seen such an explosive boomerang of misdirected creativity. Land of the Blind supposedly drops us into a 'nameless' time and place, but the problem is that there's nothing nameless at all in writer/director Robert Edwards' universe. Recognizable history, architecture and costuming have all been boosted from the real world and re-arranged to some confusing purpose. The film's focus is on a Stalinist dictator with British henchmen who lives in a giant Hindu palace, enjoys American basketball, attends pagan funerals where bodies are set afire, and watches vaudeville routines. It's as if some sample-happy Martian Quentin Tarantino decided to make a film about life on Earth for an audience that knew nothing about it. There's nothing wrong with anachronism, of course. The HBO western drama Deadwood mixes and matches language from different eras, and the result is brilliant. The problem with Land of the Blind is that there is no artistry whatsoever in the usage. Everything is willy-nilly.
Travel-sized tyrant Maximilian II (rising star Tom Hollander, from Joe Wright's brilliant Pride & Prejudice) took over the reigns of this nameless country's political dynasty after his father's death. But tyranny is not Max's only interest, by a long shot. Like a demented version of Rushmore's Max Fischer, he lives to engage in unlikely hobbies, such as leading an otherwise all-black basketball team. Max also has a keen interest in filmmaking, and dips into his country's coffers to finance his own directorial vanity projects. From the clips we see of his pet project, it looks like a sequel to Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. While the film's post-production goes on, a film editor is physically strapped to a chair at all times, with a food pellet tube aimed at his cheek, in order to keep Max's projects on schedule. "I want subtext," Max informs him during an impromptu visit. "All great filmmakers have subtext." Because Max is played by Hollander, the idea comes across as funny -- if anyone should be able to play a slimy English version of Kim Jong Il, it's him. In another film, with a different story, script, director and writer, his portrayal could have been hilarious.
Max is accompanied at all times by an entourage of goons and his first lady, played by Lara Flynn Boyle as a Marie Antoinette/Elena Ceausescu type, utterly oblivious to the revolutionary ferment going on outside the walls of her palace. While protesters march, she and her husband enjoy watching stand-up comedians in blackface. Here's a sample joke from their routine: "How many Chinamen does it take to screw in a light bulb? Two. One to screw it in, and one to be a slanty-eyed gook."
While the royals do their thing, Ralph Fiennes' character, Joe, stands guard outside the cell of a political prisoner, Thorne (Donald Sutherland). When we first see Thorne, he is writing his political philosophy on the walls of his prison cell, in shit. We never actually see the pile of shit that produced an entire manifesto, but it must have been enormous. After reading the shit screed, Joe comes around to Thorne's way of thinking. Some cloudy plot mechanics follow, and Thorne is released from prison only to lead a revolutionary movement that assassinates President Maximilian. (I'm not giving anything away. Max comes back to life later.)
Most of the dialogue during these supposedly portentous, historically weighty scenes wouldn't go over in a community college writing class. "Terminate him with extreme prejudice." "He's leading us down the primrose path." "Let's call a spade a spade." The only non-cliche passages in the film are the ones actually purloined from history books. There's a moment when one character tells of how "our ancestors, on first coming to this country, burned their ships" to prevent turning back. That sounds like Cortez and America, but we're not in America are we? The Charlotte Corday bathtub murder from the French Revolution is also re-hashed here. It seems like director Edwards just went through an AP European history book and highlighted the stuff he liked. That said, I should add one thing in fairness: When this film does choose to put original dialogue in the mouths of the actors, it produces an interesting result. I'm thinking of Lara Flynn Boyle's monologue during a bedroom scene with Maximilian, in which she tells him, among other things: "I want your big, fat cock inside me. I want your big donkey dick inside me." Why was this ingenious bit of writing not quoted in the film's press booklet? Instead, the booklet touts festival prizes Land of the Blind has won and describes the film as a "daring" passion project about "the power of memory." Bo-ring. More donkey dick, please.
After assuming power, Thorne -- who wears brass-buttoned jackets borrowed from the set of a Civil War movie -- is revealed to be a secret Muslim fundamentalist. Yes, I'm talking about Donald Sutherland. All women in the land, including the blonde on the evening news, are promptly bagged into full-body abayas. Having taken care of those uppity women, Thorne next extends his wrath to -- wait for it -- keep waiting -- people with glasses! Yes, society in this nameless time and place is under threat from people who wear glasses. All those who infect the body politic with their ocular heathenry are rounded up and thrown into concentration camps. At this point, you could be thinking to yourself: "Ryan may be short-changing this film by taking everything seriously. Maybe he has a tin ear for Strangelovian black comedy." I assure you I do not. Land of the Blind is not in on the joke. To prove this, I could keep going, and tell you about the re-education camp where people learn that "stale crackers are better than nothing" and "nothing is better than a big, juicy steak," so therefore "nothing is better than stale crackers." Or I could tell you about the stock footage of elephants that is dropped into the film without any context several times, the same way Ed Wood inserted meaningless footage of buffalo into Glen or Glenda. This is a film that would make him proud.
Footnote: There's apparently a character named Morales in the film, and he must have something to do with the plot, because at one point Ralph Fiennes appears on-screen in a state of exasperation to declare that "Morales is on a beach somewhere, fucking twelve-year old girls until his balls drop off." After delivering that line -- I may be mistaken here -- but I could have sworn I saw Fiennes look directly into the camera and blink some kind of S.O.S. signal to the audience.