It’s extremely hard to make a movie where almost nothing happens and still have an interesting and entertaining result. Director David Jacobson clearly didn’t know just how difficult of a task this is when he was making Tomorrow You’re Gone, as his final result shows nothing happening in a very bland film.
Charlie Rankin (Stephen Dorff) is out of prison, but still indebted to a man who supposedly saved his life behind bars (Willem Dafoe). Charlie’s first task to make things even is to carry out a murder, but things are complicated when he meets a woman named Florence (Michelle Monaghan), who instantly falls for him and tries to pry the good out of his tough exterior.
It isn’t as if this is a film where the filmmaker finds the characters much more interesting than the audience does and that is the cause of the dull moments, rather it almost seems to be the opposite. Jacobson takes what could be two extremely interesting characters, and refuses to dig into who they are, as if he thinks the audience wouldn’t care to learn more about them. Instead, we just get to watch them drive around and engage in fake philosophical talks while Dorff does his best to act like if he says one word he’ll hurl.
Monaghan’s performance is extremely good considering what she’s working with, but her character is so unlikable and so fake that it’s painful to watch her struggle against the mound of phony lines she tries to overcome. She shines in comparison to Dorff, and steals every scene they’re in together, but again, it’s hard to fault him considering his character does absolutely nothing for 99% of the film. Even Daniel Day-Lewis would have trouble making Charlie an entertaining character to watch.
While the dialogue is sparse at times, what is said is so horrendously written that perhaps the film would’ve been better off if the characters never spoke at all. Charlie’s gruff redneck demeanor is conveyed by making every other word he says “ain’t”, while Florence sounds like she was written by someone whose last experience hearing an actual country girl talk was listening to Elly May Clampett on half an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies as a kid.
But it’s hard, and pointless, to dwell on either the dialogue or the acting when there’s so many glaring problems with the story. The first 92 minutes of the film are spent foreshadowing a big conclusion. This can work well if the conclusion is great enough to be worth the wait. Unfortunately for Tomorrow You’re Gone though, it only runs 92 minutes, meaning before any grand conclusion can be reached, the movie is over, leaving only the feeling of being cheated as the credits scroll.
It isn’t only the ending that cheats the audience. The entire film is full of cop-outs and forced assumption. For a film to tell the tale of a journey, the audience has to actually see the journey. All the moments that have the most potential for drama are avoided. The scene is either cut too early or the camera simply doesn’t follow the characters in the next room, and as an audience we’re left with muffled sounds and our own thoughts to fill in the gaps.
Jacobson tries too hard to be an artist and not hard enough to be a storyteller. From overly on-the-nose symbolism (Charlie constantly seeing ghosts of his past and Florence in the rear-view mirror) to many scenes where it seems like the characters are only discussing deep topics so the audience will realize that whoever wrote this must be deep as well, the film lacks the story that would power an interest in such a filmmaking style.
The potential is definitely there for such a story. Charlie is so haunted by his past that he can barely function even after doing time in prison. That’s perfect for a character study about someone adjusting to life on the outside. The fact that he’s forced to risk heading straight back to jail after doing four years is so rich for suspense that the writer hardly would have to try to keep the audience on the edge of their seat, but sadly, there’s never even the slightest notion that Charlie may be in danger of anything more than losing a girl he’s known for a couple days to a guy playing pool.
The film is purposefully cryptic and ambiguous, another technique that can work when done well, but doesn’t work at all here. Instead of being thought provoking or pensive, it’s merely confusing, as the blurred line between reality and hallucinatory moments disappears at times. Mystery doesn’t automatically equal intrigue, especially when nothing mysterious leads to a pay-off. Leaving some things for the audience to decipher can be interesting. Leaving everything for the audience to decipher is just lazy film-making.
Tomorrow You’re Gone tries to be a lot of things. It tries to be deep, thought-provoking, and artistic. Unfortunately it fails at all those attempts, and the result is a thoroughly unsatisfying film.
Tomorrow You're Gone may be overly confusing from start to finish, but there's no confusion about the fact that it's simply not very good.