Atom Egoyan’s serpentine erotic thriller, Exotica, is a flawless exercise in understated urgency. Flashbacks, arresting visuals, and Mychael Danna’s score slowly reveal a web of strangers inextricably linked by one man’s suffering. It’s less a cinematic puzzle than an organic realization. When all of the mysteries are unraveled, you know a little bit more about the Human condition. Though many consider The Sweet Hereafter to be Egoyan’s masterpiece, Exotica is fearless indie filmmaking at its best.
From the very first images of Exotica—a languid tracking shot across an artificial tropical landscape—we have the unsettling feeling that something terrible is lurking in the weeds. “You have to ask yourself what brought the person to this point,” an unseen narrator advises us. Egoyan then spends the next 100 minutes re-constructing the events that irrevocably shattered each of his characters.
In itself, the story is the stuff of melodrama; the messy interpersonal politics that keep us updating our ‘friends list’ on social media. Through Egoyan’s elliptical storytelling, however, it becomes a labyrinth of complicated motives and violated social contracts. He wants to know how we create the delicate structure of tranquility in our lives so he can systematically destroy it. Money, sex, and delusion can only hold things together for so long. Eventually, life intervenes and our carefully laid plans are exposed as an artifice.
Egoyan introduces each story thread with the utmost care. Thomas (Don McKellar) skulks at an airport checkpoint, monitored through a two-way mirror by a suspicious customs agent. That this agent, a seemingly insignificant player in the game, plays such an important role later in the film demonstrates the intricacy of Egoyan’s script. Exotica features several terrific performances from its ensemble cast, including McKellar as the unassuming Thomas. A man who brazenly displays the precious macaw eggs he smuggled into the country, or leaves a handgun in his unlocked desk drawer is just begging for ensnarement. For Thomas, there are far too many secrets and not enough escape routes.
Next, we go inside the erotic nightclub, the Exotica. It’s at once elegantly decorated to give it a classy eroticism, while still remaining nothing more than a sleazy strip club. Nubile girls take to the runway as the disc jockey, Eric (Elias Koteas), implores drunken businessmen to buy their own private table dance. “Let them show you the mysteries of their world,” he suggests amid a drone of exotic music and throbbing lights. Clearly numbed to the cavalcade of flesh, his suggestive banter is neither sexy nor spontaneous.
His detachment quickly evaporates, however, when Christina (Mia Kirshner) takes the stage in her Catholic school uniform. With her tartan skirt and half-exposed breasts, she looks like a fallen angel, writhing to the baritone yearnings of Leonard Cohen’s, “Everybody Knows.” Cohen’s paean to pessimism becomes a minor character in Exotica, tying together events from both inside and outside the club. For Eric, this “sassy bit of jailbait” holds a special place of contempt in his heart. “What is it about a schoolgirl that gives her that special innocence?” he wonders aloud. Judging by the dead expression on Christina’s young face, it’s an innocence she never had the luxury of enjoying.
When her time on the runway is finished, Christina spends her evening dancing for Francis (Bruce Greenwood). He’s an unassuming, middle-aged man whose rugged good looks are twisted by the crippling grief of a family tragedy. It’s clear that Christina wants to console him, but a strict club policy keeps them from making a physical connection. Instead, they share a psychic connection that extends far beyond their relationship as customer and dancer. Egoyan keeps this connection, as well as their soulful conversations, a secret for much of Exotica; a fact that piques our curiosity and drives Eric absolutely insane. What are they talking about? Why isn’t Christina willing to shower Eric with the same comfort she reserves for Francis? There is palpable tension between the three of them, but Egoyan lets it build to an inevitable explosion.
Watching the patrons from behind her two-way glass is the proprietor, Zoe (Arsinée Khanjian). Her mother owned the Exotica, and now she carries on the proud tradition. Unlike the other characters in Exotica, who share an unwritten behavioral contract with each other, Zoe and Eric have an explicit contract; he signed a document agreeing to father her child. As if that dynamic weren’t strange enough, Zoe and Christina are also having an affair. Egoyan ties these characters together so tightly that there is no hope of escape.
Despite the film’s namesake, we slowly realize that it is Francis, not the club, who connects all of the storylines. Exotica is about the lies we tell ourselves to survive. Francis is a master of self-deception, and each character, to varying degrees, is trapped by his weakness. Every week, he pays his niece, Tracey (Sarah Polley), to babysit his empty house, while his wheelchair-bound brother, Harold (Victor Garber), makes excuses for this obvious sham. “Francis always had strange ways to convince himself of things,” Harold explains to a perplexed Tracey.
Though basically a kind, generous man, Francis manipulates everyone in his life into playing a complementary role. Sometimes, as with Christina’s table dances, there appears to be a mutual benefit, while other times, like when he extorts favors from Thomas, there is a startling callousness. Just how long he’s willing to maintain his lies, and the cost of keeping the complementary players in line, makes for a fascinating, if not uncomfortable, viewing experience.
Egoyan uses Francis’ complexity as the thematic underpinning for Exotica. He posits that we don’t pay others for services rendered, but for the illusion of those services. The true meanings—the itches that we need scratched—can be hidden and protected if the price is right. Time and time again, characters pay each other for their own surreptitious motivations. Francis isn’t paying Tracey $20 an hour to babysit his empty house, but to talk to him on the car ride home; to make him feel like a nurturing father again. He doesn’t pay Christina for a lurid table dance, but a chance to protect an innocent girl from oblivion. Thomas, who scams anonymous male companions out of money for ballet tickets he received gratis, doesn’t refund their money out of guilt, but for the luxury of leering at their crotches all night (it should be noted that he does not repay the man whose crotch finally satisfies his exacting standards). The money paid is a contract to indulge the lies and fantasies we can’t yet confront in our minds.
Structurally, too, Egoyan reveals Francis’ true motivations over the course of the entire film. He does this through the clever use of home-movie footage (a staple of Egoyan films), as well as several emotional flashbacks. Bits and pieces of static-laced video hint at the idyllic family life stripped away from Francis. Now all that remains are the ghosts preserved on tape to forever haunt him; like a beautiful dancer he is forbidden from ever touching.
More important are the flashbacks about a volunteer search party combing over a grassy field. We guess the target of the search pretty quickly, as Egoyan isn’t interested in constructing a mystery. Instead, he’s teasing out the connections between the characters. In this case, it’s the chance meeting between a younger, idealistic Eric and a wide-eyed Christina. We don’t yet know why Christina is searching, but we come to understand a great deal about Eric. He’s introspective and sympathetic; in stark contrast to the conniving lothario at the Exotica. There is still hope for him, and he recognizes a spark of opportunity in this quiet, thoughtful girl. And then, it’s all changed by a fateful discovery.
Whether there’s any escape from the stranglehold of this cruel fate is the central question that drives our interest. “Not all of us have the luxury of deciding what to do with our lives,” Christina laments to Zoe. It’s grueling to watch these pained characters, each tormented by a longing to undo a senseless tragedy, hurt each other so deeply. Guessing just how far they will go to preserve their fragile delusions makes this unconventional thriller completely engrossing.
The brilliance of Mychael Danna’s score can’t be overstated. His haunting piano style would be more prominent in The Sweet Hereafter, but here it functions to connect the empty spaces occupied by Francis’ shattered family. In the field where everything changed, or the house that is no longer a home, Danna’s piano echoes the beauty of a future that will never come to pass. His Middle Eastern-laden passages, too, give this serpentine story a dance-like quality; like we’re being lulled into a trance by a master storyteller.
Cinematographer Paul Sarossy keeps this low-budget indie looking amazing. His camera gives the Exotica a genuine sense of scale and place; it’s a living, breathing creation filled with shadows and spies. Though its framing isn’t ambitious or showy, Exotica makes the most of its limited locales. Even Thomas’ exotic pet store feels inherently dangerous, as Francis is startled by a grotesque eruption of bubbles in an eel’s tank. Egoyan and Sarossy create a palpable tension by focusing on the subtle weirdness of the space itself. It’s a tremendously effective technique that relies more upon imagination than flash.
Egoyan’s directorial and screenwriting prowess finally converged with Exotica. Largely devoid of indie pretensions, there is an emotional core here that demands our attention. As the story reveals itself and we come to care more deeply about these characters, we genuinely fear what they might become. It’s an emotionally-exhausting experience that challenges the viewer to continually re-evaluate what they know and what they expect. It’s unlikely you’ll be on the edge of your seat, but you’ll definitely have a lump in your throat. Exotica is a testament to the cinematic power of a filmmaker in complete control of both his story and his vision.