For a while, the quirky independent film Twin Falls Idaho is mesmerizing despite the fact that not much is going on, and a lot of the movie’s power comes from the simple image of the two heroes’ faces side by side, whispering in consultation while wearing chocolate-gray hipster suits. It’s a stark, poetic image, and not just because the heroes, Blake and Francis Falls (Mark and Michael Polish) are twins who are literally joined at the hip and must share three legs between them. The faces of the Polish brothers, identical twin filmmakers who wrote this story together, are beautiful and spooky in and of themselves. These young men have big eyes and high foreheads and narrow Roman noses that jut out, birdlike, from their milky white faces. They might be figures from a Raphael study, alien angels, desiccated opium addicts who were born in a realm of dreamers and somehow got melted into one person during the transport process. They speak in high, hesitant voices with a faint stammer, and often when one brother is speaking (or, more often, listening) the second brother will size up the first, turning his head on their shared shoulder rack.
Makeup man Gary J. Tunnicliffe’s elaborate and extremely painful body harness, which required one brother to fold his leg behind his back so the camera couldn’t see it, is sensationally effective because it’s simple and low-tech, like something Lon Chaney would have invented in the silent era. It’s the simplest possible solution to representing an extreme physical condition. The makeup also works because the Falls brothers (and the Polish brothers) have taught themselves to do so much so gracefully despite their confinement. In one scene, Blake and Francis even play guitar together, one brother strumming while the other does the fretwork. The Polish brothers aren’t great actors, but in a weird way that doesn’t matter. So much of their power to mesmerize you comes from the shapes of their faces and their side-by-side juxtaposition—the way one whispers conspiratorially to the other while the other is talking to somebody, and the odd, galumphing way they walk on that shared third leg.
The movie’s basic concept is effective as well. It has a fairy tale creep-out quality, like a tale the human race has been dreaming for thousands of years but couldn’t remember until now. It goes like this: Blake and Francis, conjoined at birth, were abandoned by their horrified mother and have more or less raised each other. Now they live alone in a flophouse, where they are discovered and befriended by a young prostitute. It turns out that one of the twins—Francis, the more skittish and paranoid one, who appropriately occupies the left side of the shared Falls body—becomes ill. Blake has literally been keeping his brother alive. As Francis explains it, Blake is “the reason why my blood pumps and my heart beats. I’m alive because of Blake.”
Talk about thy brother’s keeper. Even more so than previous twins stories, this one literalizes the idea, and in the abstract the approach works like gangbusters. You figure out early on that this story can only go one way: the twins will have to be separated so that one can live—otherwise both will die. So it’s a countdown to dread—the kind of movie David Cronenberg and Brian De Palma do so well when they’re thinking clearly; the kind of movie that wraps you in dreamy horror and tightens its grip so carefully that by the end you feel emotionally wrung out.
Of course, the film described above is a hypothetical one, made by a master in total control of all his storytelling powers. The Polish brothers aren’t master filmmakers, and whatever powers they have are often used in irrelevant and counterproductive ways. They seem like they’re mostly diddling around—like they had a great idea but couldn’t be bothered to turn it into anything more than a good idea in an attractive package. It’s a fetish object for the Polish brothers. Of course you can understand why they’d want to make it; all you have to do is look at the guys. But the unanswered question is why they thought their own interest was enough to make us care. The film asks for a lot—generosity, critical slack and loads and loads of patience—but it rarely gives anything back. And as emotionally loaded as this concept is, the result is curiously uninvolving.
It is visually striking and then some. Cinematographer M. David Mullen, production designer Warren Alan Young and costumer Bic Owen have seen a lot of David Lynch movies and a lot of David Byrne videos, and they know the vibe the filmmakers are going for. Superficially, they achieve it. The color scheme could be described as “rave decay”—lots of ochre, rust, algae green and briny blue—and there are lots of retro props (like rotary phones and manually operated elevators) that place the film somewhere a couple of degrees to the left of reality.
But the Polish brothers’ script is little more than a series of very loosely defined situations—they meet the prostitute, they go to a party on Halloween because that’s the only night when they can be seen in public and not get gawked at, they visit their neurotic mom (Lesley Anne Warren) and so forth. When the dialogue isn’t irritatingly shallow, hip and pointless, like cocktail hour chitchat in a Hollywood hipster bar, it’s so on-the-nose explicit that eye-rolling and forehead-smacking is the only appropriate response. In one scene, the doctor who examines them (Patrick Bachau, Mimi Rogers’ Eurotrash swinger boyfriend in The Rapture) hands the heroine a two-dollar bill and launches into an elaborate metaphor about how if you cut the bill in half, “you don’t get two single bills…the strength is in the bond of two.” Hearing that, I found myself thinking, “Jesus, we’re in the last act of the film and she’s been around them for quite awhile—you’d think she have figured this out by now.” It’s like Closed Captioning for dimwits. (The title, once explained, is a clunker as well: The Falls brothers are Twins, and they live on Idaho St. What’s that Spinal Tap line about the fine line between clever and stupid?)
There are other elements that just plain don’t work because they’re silly, unbelievable or both. There’s a vulgar, fast-talking character who broaches the subject of peddling the brothers’ story to tv newsmagazines in such a bonehead-obvious way that it’s hard to imagine any living human could trust him; he’s like a twelve-year old’s idea of a sleazy agent as derived from bad 70s tv. And even allowing for the fantasy context of Twin Falls Idaho, it seems clear from the costumes, slang, music and attitudes that the story is set in something resembling the modern era, so I had a hard time swallowing the notion that a couple of conjoined brothers as handsome as Blake and Francis would be able to live lives of near-total seclusion. The script tries to do an end run around this problem late in the movie, showing us that the brothers grew up in a traveling freak show. But since when are there freak shows, and why would two brothers as handsome, shy and sensitive as Blake and Francis want to join up? And why wouldn’t the media seek them out anyway? Everybody in the Elephant Man’s geographic area knew who he was, and he lived in Victorian England, before telephones or mass communication of any kind. The gynecologist twins in Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers were quite famous (naturally the Polish brothers lift a few ideas from it, including the bit where the twin heroes slow-dance with a woman, literalizing the idea that she’s coming between them).
This is refrigerator logic, I admit, but the key to nipping refrigerator logic in the bud is telling a story so well that the audience gets swept up and doesn’t have the time or the inclination to overthink things. Twin Falls Idaho is paralyzingly slow in spots, and the ending, though powerful, would have been 10 times as effective if the script wasn’t so meandering and disorganized. It’s the kind of film that should be so emotionally overwhelming that by the end you can hardly breathe. It invites disappointed sighs instead.