Why you should care

It’s more than just a sexy thriller. It’s a cinematic triumph too many have missed.

At the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, Pulp Fiction wasn’t the only nonlinear masterwork to make its premiere. Also on the Croisette was Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, a hypnotically unsettling exploration of grief and disenchantment. Both were well-received (Exotica won the FIPRESCI Prize, Pulp Fiction the Palme d’Or), but it seemed mass audiences only had room in their hearts for one crosscutting narrative. Two decades later, the film lurks in the background as a melancholic movie that works its way into your consciousness and doesn’t let go.

The Exotica strip club hosts much of the film’s action. The club has a worn tropical theme, with sad-looking dancers on display for potential buyers. The director takes a good long while to announce what he’s really up to with all this — you might even argue that Egoyan doesn’t make himself clear until the entrancing final sequence. The story’s internal drama is built on layers of unease and yearning: We see snippets of a sequence throughout the film, set a number of years in the past, in which two members of a search party connect while looking for someone whose identity isn’t immediately revealed. We’ve already met both of these searchers in the present: One is the DJ who waxes philosophical to Exotica’s horny, half-listening patrons in between dances, while the other is one of the performers. The two appear far more relaxed and upbeat while looking for a missing person than they do in their jobs, forging a personal connection that’s long since deteriorated by the time they become colleagues.

An astonishing few minutes recast the implications of everything we’ve seen over the last 100 minutes.

Along with his follow-up The Sweet Hereafter, the film is regarded by many as Egoyan’s best, as well as one of the most important Canadian films ever made. That didn’t translate to much financial success — it never has for him, unfortunately — and, until his recent downturn with works like Devil’s Knot and The Captive, Egoyan has always been more of a critical darling than a blockbuster. Exotica is a roving portrait of loneliness and longing, and Egoyan’s use of the nonlinear approach is most effective as a means of conveying just how lost his characters are. All the major players interact extensively — oftentimes quite intimately — but the fleeting, even inconsequential nature of their dealings emphasizes their isolation rather than their connection.

This carefully constructed mood culminates in a devastating finale: an astonishing few minutes that recast the implications of everything we’ve seen over the last 100 minutes. Egoyan drops a bombshell here, but it lands with such quiet elegance that you never actually hear it go off — it’s less a plot twist in the conventional sense of the term and more a vital context clue that makes every other narrative piece fall into place. Mike D’Angelo of The Dissolve, The AV Club and many other publications, who counts Exotica among his favorite films, offers over email that the ending’s power “lies almost entirely in implication … it’s shattering precisely because nothing is actually stated.”

Mychael Danna’s shehnai-heavy score reaches its zenith as the credits offer a chance to make sense of what’s just come to pass and, if you’re anything like this writer, you’ll feel compelled to re-watch that jaw-dropping sequence time and again. Like Exotica as a whole, it’s dispiriting without being draining. There’s a temptation to return to that world even if you know that, like the characters themselves, you may not fully belong there.

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