“Do you ever stand in the mirror so long that you become disgusted with yourself?” Aging movie star Colleen West (Ellen Barkin) asks this very Hollywood question to her young beau and fellow actor Harvey West (Luke Grimes) early in Cam Archer’s Shit Year, a volatile but intoxicating examination of personal emptiness. Throughout the film’s many hypnotic narrative tangents, it’s blatantly obvious Colleen specializes in this type of masochistic discourse. Time spent with Harvey during a final artistic hurrah (a community theater production) is especially self-immolating for Colleen. The romantic delusions eventually wash away and she’s left with only her shape-shifting memories that are both expansive and distrusting in nature. After her relationship with Harvey fractures, Colleen moves to a cabin somewhere in the woods north of Los Angeles, but instead of serenity she finds the constant roar of tractors and bulldozers clearing nature away for development plans. “All I hear are machines,” she says, cementing a clear reality: There will be no peace throughout this Shit Year.
While Archer spends ample time contrasting Harvey’s Adonis physique with Colleen’s growing depression, the film isn’t wholly concerned with the tropes of typical romance films dealing with wide generational gaps. Shit Year reveals the degenerative ways Colleen uses her heightened experiences with Harvey as last-ditch efforts to find meaning in an otherwise artificial world crumbling apart at the seams. To further accentuate the story’s fluidity, Archer includes scenes that seem to represent a sci-fi vision of the future (or perhaps purgatory) where Harvey may be a simulation of Colleen’s tortured subconscious. Whether or not this is the case, Shit Year instills poetry and horror in Colleen’s kinetic visions, sometimes simultaneously, and the results are almost always fascinating.
Shit Year is a thematic twin to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, both heightened fables about the slow disintegration of a retired actress mourning her now-dead career by retreating inward. But Archer’s black-and-white nightmare uses experimental-film techniques (an overlapping sound design and non-linear narrative jumps) to update a very classic form of melodramatic suffering. If Norma Desmond battled her social inconsequence with violence and passive aggression, Colleen’s descent is a much slower, contained, and unglamorous affair, as if she has been fated to experience this slow crash long ago. Symbolically, puppets figure prominently throughout, and Colleen even describes Hollywood as a “circus” to an inquisitive neighbor (Melora Walters). It’s an interesting bit of irony considering how all forms of outward presentation appear torturous for Colleen.
As the drifting human vessel in Shit Year‘s cinematic ocean of uncertainty, Barkin brilliantly inhabits Colleen as a woman emotionally derailed by a lifelong dependency on artistic and emotional loss. Her mix of class and decrepitness is a truly singular characterization, her striking figure looking like a lurking cripple one moment and a sensual being the next. Archer and cinematographer Aaron Platt give Barkin’s all-consuming performance the perfect sense of texture and sheen her character deserves, illuminating every wrinkle, tear, and occasional smile in stunning close-ups. Colleen’s lengthy story about a blind woman allows Barkin to gravely flex her range. It also exemplifies Shit Year‘s ability to toe the line between waking dream and nightmare, themes of compassion and selfishness.
Dualities in life, art, and madness crisscross throughout Shit Year, but no more so than when Colleen becomes aware that her life has permanently shifted into a completely alien gear. “It’s the end of everything and the start of nothing,” she confesses to Harvey after their play ends, a kind of self-contained suicide note he doesn’t understand. Amazingly, in Archer’s hands this isn’t a painful statement, and Barkin’s masterful delivery shows a flicker of hope underneath all that running mascara. The first layer of Colleen’s suffering may be constructed of thick shit, piled on by all the disappointment and regrets of a life deconstructed. But through Barkin’s haunted gaze, Archer’s wonderfully ambiguous character study gives hope that this may only be a first bridge to fulfillment, something worthy of an afterlife.