WICKER PARK is a dense, elegant mystery directed by Paul McGuigan, who knows the difference between being stylish and being showy. The flash in this tale of love at first sight and its fallout comes from the way it tricks the audience into deceiving itself before unraveling another set of assumptions by deftly shifting the point of view. No one and nothing is what it seems, and yet it all follows an orderly if internal logic that reveals itself in tantalizing morsels. Up is down, black is white, and obsession can lead to happiness or despair.
By chance, Matthew (Josh Hartnett), a photographer turned advertising guy, overhears a telephone conversation through an air vent in an upscale Chicago restaurant where hes entertaining clients from China in preparation for climbing the next rung on the corporate ladder. The voice is familiar, and when he spies the speaker racing away, the glimpse convinces him against all reason that its his lost love, Lisa (Diane Kruger), the love of his life who left him abruptly and without a word of explanation two years before. By the phone, Matthew finds a hotel room key and, though he doesnt know it, the end of his life as he knows it. Rather than taking the flight to Shanghai that night to finish the Chinese deal and secure his future, he bids his new girlfriend goodbye at the airport, takes a cab back in the city, and begins looking for Lisa while reliving in flashbacks how he met her and how she left him with a broken heart.
The story splits into three separate skeins that are nonetheless intricately entwined. McGuigan, echoing that, splits the screen, showing the same character moving in time and space and different characters separate, but side by side. Visually compelling, serving the storyline with the juxtapositions it presents, its also a commentary on how people see each other and themselves. Its significant that Matthew first sees Lisa not in the flesh, but in a video playback and its that image, speaking Shakespeare, with which he is smitten.
There is a twist so beautiful, so surprising and yet so dazzlingly reasonable with what it portends for both the back story and what is to come. The script, adapted by Brandon Boyce from the French film, L’APPARTEMENT, maintains the suspense, providing the framework for McGuigan to work in all three time streams, as what we thought we knew in each evaporates, becoming as elusory as Lisa, leaving us as obsessed as Matthew is about finding the truth. Its in there, but buried deep in an intricate web of subterfuge that cant help but collapse under its own weight. Or at least it should.
In each exquisitely composed frame of film, even the smallest detail in one timeline can resonate mightily in another, evoking a knowing gasp. Note the Chinese motif throughout, almost as if reminding Matthew again and again that China is waiting, its there in a set of lacquer chests, in a visit to his old pal Luke (Matthew Lillard, who is finally allowed to show some range here) in his shop named Dragon Lady Shoes, and the mask-like makeup worn by Lukes girlfriend (Rose Byrne) during a stage performance. The casting is just as precise. Hartnett, with a face radiating boyish innocence, makes Matthews irrational behavior the stuff of romance, rather than something darker, even unhinged.
WICKER PARK is like a hall of mirrors, an amusement to be enjoyed in the moment.