The human mind is capable of doing bizzare things to the body it controls, and it’s even more capable of making people want things that defy common sense. Fiona (Vera Farmiga) can’t escape these truths because she lives them. She is an able-bodied woman who straps on leg braces behind closed doors, feels a sense of completeness when she sits in her wheelchair. Fiona doesn’t so much want to be paralyzed; she believes she is paralyzed, just “trapped in a walking person’s body.” Every step she takes reminds her that she feels wrong in her own skin, and she’s convinced paralysis is the only thing that can make her feel right.
Fiona’s predicament makes for the most intriguing plot thread in Carlos Brooks’ unusual, noirish “Quid Pro Quo,” so it’s unfortunate that her story gets muddled by another, which exists only to provide an “aha!” climax that, to be frank, could be seen from space. What would make a woman like Fiona, a woman capable of rational thought, want to spend her life in a wheelchair? Fiona herself wonders about this; friends in her support group wonder; and Brooks has other characters pose the question numerous times. No one arrives at an answer. This wouldn’t be an issue at all if the strategy felt deliberate, as though the director wanted us to come up with our own reasons, perhaps chalk Fiona’s desire up to a disconnect between what the brain knows as fact and what the heart wants. But Brooks abandons the question totally in search of that blasted twist, and in doing so he abandons what could have been a fine journey into aberrant desires.
At least “Quid Pro Quo,” which feels uncomfortably similar at times to David Cronenberg’s “Crash,” gets off to a promising start. New York reporter Isaac Knott (Nick Stahl), a paraplegic since the childhood car accident that killed both his parents, gets a tip about a man who tried bribing an intern to amputate his leg. This isn’t your average story, and when Isaac follows the trail he ends up at a meeting for people who desire paralysis. They pepper him with questions about what it’s like to be paralyzed. Isaac’s answers, about wanting to walk again, aren’t what they want to hear. That tip also leads Isaac to meet Fiona, an art conservator who won’t give him an in with the group until Isaac becomes her paralysis consultant. She knows how she sounds to Isaac, asking “You think I’m fucked in the head, don’t you?” He does but he doesn’t scare easily. Fiona’s situation piques his curiosity; he wants to understand this woman who wants the one thing he’s spent his life trying to reverse.
Had Brooks let this growing relationship stand alone, “Quid Pro Quo” might have been touching, a film in the vein of Steven Shainberg’s “Secretary” — two lovers who accept each other’s oddities. However, Brooks shifts gears 30 minutes in and pushes “Quid Pro Quo” in several other directions. These diversions are jarring, especially one involving Isaac finding a pair of “magic shoes.” We’re never sure which path to follow, since none of them are remotely as intriguing as Fiona’s unconventional desires. We want to know more about these people, driven underground because society won’t accommodate them. There’s a candid talk between the support group leader (Phil LaMarr) and Isaac that’s left hanging. Being open about his wish for paralysis, he informs Isaac, has cost him his family. This is the real story (touching very indirectly on Body Integrity Identity Disorder, or BIID), and Brooks doesn’t tell it.
“Quid Pro Quo,” with its neo-noir stamp (Sam Spade Isaac is not, mind you), disappoints on other levels. Farmiga, ordinarily a wonderful actress, can’t find the right tone for Fiona and trends toward overacting. Never a terribly expressive leading man, Stahl underplays Isaac to the point that his dry wit is undermined by his dullness. Their chemistry is off kilter, or just “off,” and so is the dialogue, which sounds hyperstylized and strained. Still, Brooks has a fair amount of undisciplined talent and the gumption to tackle Hollywood-unfriendly subjects. This makes him a director worth watching and one deserving of another go.
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Readers out there who have seen Cronenberg’s “Crash” — what’s your verdict on the film?