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Wrinkles in Times: Hill Tackles Vonnegut’s Time-Traveling Classic “Slaughterhouse-Five” | Blu-ray Review

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who remains one of the modern era’s most celebrated American writers, is a largely untapped inspiration for cinematic adaptation—perhaps because he remains ahead of (his) time, even today. Just as his rise to acclaim in literature was prolonged, cinema has taken even longer to navigate Vonnegut (who wrote one script, Mark Robson’s Happy Birthday, Wanda June, which was a critically derided 1971 film starring Rod Steiger and Susannah York).

Few have attempted to mount a Vonnegut adaptation (among them—Steven Paul, Keith Gordon and Alan Rudolph), usually to mixed or poor reception. For Vonnegut, it was his sixth novel, the seminal Slaughterhouse-Five published in 1969, which became his breakthrough, and of course, a film ahead of, behind and far beyond the notion of time, here presented as a darkly satirical mobius strip in the time traveling journeys of the unreliable, potentially insane narrator Billy Pilgrim. Strangely, it was director George Roy Hill who would serve up the most acclaimed adaptation of Vonnegut, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes and a Golden Globe nod for Michael Saks as Most Promising Newcomer.

Michael Sacks makes his debut as Billy Pilgrim, who in 1968 upstate New York attempts to narrate his non-linear narrative, wherein we find he has come “unstuck in time,” traveling at random between past, present and future. Key events in his life become a jumbled hodge-podge, from his WWII days wherein he becomes of POW during the Battle of the Bulge, surviving the bombing of Dresden, and eventually abducted by aliens to become a subject in their human zoo on the planet Tralfamadore.

Slaughterhouse-Five was the second and last time Hill competed in Cannes (he presented his 1964 comedy The World of Henry Orient nearly a decade prior) and was the project he made between his iconic films Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973). As faithful as Hill and scribe Stephen Geller are to Vonnegut’s text, however, as visual spectacle it doesn’t quite compare to the exuberance of the novel, which is arguably due to Hill’s formalism (in the earlier days of his career, Hill adapted well-staged cinematic versions of Tennessee Williams and Lillian Hellman with Period of Adjustment and Toys in the Attic, respectively). For instance, compare Hill’s adaptation of Vonnegut to something like Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1971), one can deduce there were likely more outlandish and daring auteurs who could have made not just a fashionable version of Vonnegut, but one which could at least equal the source text’s iconicity. Edgar Derby, Valerie Perrine and Ron Leibman (as a homophobic, wartime antagonist of Pilgrim’s) co-star.

Film Rating: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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