Wish You Were Here received mostly glowing reviews from US critics and copious publicity last week, centred primarily on lead actor Joel Edgerton whose profile has rocketed after The Great Gatsby and Zero Dark Thirty.
Despite all that, the psychological thriller had a disappointing opening weekend, taking $US25,700 at 11 cinemas in 10 cities including the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles and the Village East in Manhattan.
Directed and co-written by Kieran Darcy-Smith, the film premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival where eOne snapped up North American rights. The distributor pushed back the release hoping to capitalise on Edgerton’s growing popularity.
Typifying the mostly laudatory reviews, the Los Angeles Times’ Gary Goldstein declared, “While the film has its moments of action, it's primarily a deeply wrenching, emotionally authentic adult drama about bad choices — some unplanned, some more calculated — and their inevitable repercussions.”
In a similar vein, Blue-ray.com’s Brian Orndorf said, “It’s a vacation-gone-wrong story, but one that’s not interested in generating fear, just unbearable tension as a simple journey into a foreign land proves disastrous, yet the participants refuse to divulge the details of their unravelling. Tightly constructed and honest with character relationships, Wish You Were Here is a riveting study of guilt and moral corruption, wisely using disorientation to sustain interest in the bleak proceedings.”
The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern said, “I never would have guessed that Wish You Were Here was a feature debut for its Australian director, Kieran Darcy-Smith. Elegantly crafted and filled with flawless performances, this mysteriously charged drama comes alive in its very first frames—a man and woman soaking up the beauty of a beach in Cambodia—then holds you in the grip of its intricate structure.”
While Morgenstern said he found Edgerton was “dismayingly wasted” as Tom Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, “this time he's got a role that does full justice to his extraordinary talents.”
Less complimentary was The New York Times’ Stephen Holden who opined, “The time you spend trying to piece together a mystery that is presented as a teasing puzzle inevitably diverts you from deeper identification with characters who are not particularly sympathetic to begin with. But this hard-boiled feature directorial debut of Kieran Darcy-Smith at least looks terrific and shows an observant eye for flash and trash. “
So what factors might explain the slow start, apart from the ever-present challenge of selling Australian indie films to US audiences?
One film industry executive in Los Angeles pointed to lack of marketing, telling IF he could not find any ads for the film in the print editions of the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. He asked, “How are you supposed to figure out how to see it?”
Another LA-based executive suggested the primary purpose of the cinema exposure was to set up for the film for DVD sales and Video-on-Demand platforms, observing, “It's a sign of the times for indie films like this one. You need a name director and a bigger cast for anyone to really care enough to step out and support theatrically.”
Also, it’s a crowded marketplace for specialty releases in the US. Joss Whedon‘s Much Ado About Nothing launched last weekend, snaring a terrific $172,000 at just five cinemas. The black-and-white contemporary take on Shakespeare's classic opens in Australia on July 11.
Rick Rowley's documentary Dirty Wars, which follows investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill as he chases down the truth behind America's covert wars, nabbed $66,000 at four theatres in New York, L.A. and Washington, D.C.
Hannah Arendt, Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic of the influential German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist, The East, an espionage thriller starring Brit Marling as a former FBI agent, and The Kings Of Summer, a US indie coming-of-age dramedy, all had solid second weekends.
In the US this year The Great Gatsby has raked in more than $136 million, The Sapphires has earned nearly $2.3 million and Lore about $950,000.