Back in the early 2010s, local film production company Lola Pictures got the chance to bring major indie filmmaking to Las Vegas with two feature films, Matthew Ross’ “Frank & Lola” and Gerardo Naranjo’s “Viena and the Fantomes,” thanks to support from Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project and the then-new tax credit program for filming in Nevada. “Frank & Lola” premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and went on to moderate acclaim and a small-scale release, and it stands as one of the better onscreen depictions of Las Vegas, with its use of Downtown locations in its story of the relationship between a volatile chef (Michael Shannon) and his fashion designer girlfriend (Imogen Poots).
“Viena and the Fantomes,” however, spent six years in limbo after being shot in 2014, with rumors about behind-the-scenes troubles and a difficult editing process. It was finally released to VOD on June 30 with almost no promotion, ending up as a footnote to Downtown Project’s moviemaking efforts (which never went beyond the two movies) and the tax credit program (which has since been scaled back). It’s also a footnote in the career of writer-director Naranjo, who was an indie-film sensation after his 2011 festival favorite “Miss Bala,” and had set “Viena” as his major follow-up project. Instead, as “Viena” sat on the shelf, Naranjo spent his time working in TV, directing episodes of “Fear the Walking Dead” and “Narcos,” before returning this year with another festival favorite, “Kokoloko.”
It’s impossible to say what “Viena” would have looked like in Naranjo’s original conception, and the version that was eventually released has the feel of a compromised movie, with a brief running time and a choppy, impressionistic structure that comes off like it has pieces missing. “Viena” isn’t a success, but it isn’t entirely a failure, either, and even this truncated version has some strong thematic and artistic elements. Chief among them is the performance from Dakota Fanning as the title character, a sort of combination roadie and groupie for post-punk band The Fantomes (the movie appears to take place sometime in the 1980s, but like a lot of the plot elements, it’s not entirely clear).
Viena tags along with the band as it travels across the country, in a sort of caravan of trucks and RVs, with band members, support staff and hangers-on. She first hooks up with fellow band employee Keyes (Frank Dillane), but when drummer Freddy (Jeremy Allen White) dumps his girlfriend Susi (Evan Rachel Wood), Viena steps up to fill that role. Susi also may have been the band’s road manager, although no one has a particularly defined role in the operation. Even the band itself is barely defined, shown onstage only very briefly, and it takes at least half the movie to figure out which characters are musicians and which characters are part of the crew.
That hazy approach is frustrating, but it’s also an effective way to convey the blur of life on the road, where every town looks the same, and shows are just brief breaks from the monotony of driving and partying. Viena is both desperate for approval from the male band members and defiantly independent, and her treatment as the equivalent of currency between Keyes and Freddy shows the casual misogyny of the supposed counterculture. Those themes are as indistinct as the plot details in the movie’s first half, but Naranjo coasts by on the burnout rock and roll vibe, which makes it even more jarring when the plot suddenly asserts itself in the final act.
When Jon Bernthal shows up as the band’s manager (or possibly an A&R rep?), pressuring Viena to placate the increasingly volatile Freddy, the movie turns dark and violent, losing its gauzy sense of lost time in favor of unmotivated assault. Rather than seriously exploring the nastier side of rock and roll excess, the shift in tone feels exploitative and ill-considered, ending the movie on a clear sour note rather than the undefined unease that preceded it. Even so, Fanning remains a strong presence as Viena, who refuses to be controlled by the men who push her around.
The movie’s delayed, low-profile release also means that Lola Pictures never got a chance to show off how well they could utilize Vegas-area locations to stand in for other parts of the country. “Viena” doesn’t take place in Vegas and doesn’t feature any familiar Vegas landmarks, instead making use of surrounding wilderness and highways, along with nondescript buildings and alleyways in town. It goes along with the movie’s dreamlike feel, in which times and places all run together as the band travels along a never-ending tour. Buried somewhere in the disjointed edits, uneven characters and abrupt plot developments, there might be a movie that gives those themes the resonance they deserve.
“Viena and the Fantomes” is now available via all major VOD outlets.