By James Kenney
“The movie confused me up until the last ten minutes, and at that point, when it was all explained, I felt so dumb. You tell yourself, why couldn’t I think of that? Then desperately hit rewind to see what else you missed.” — A City University of New York student’s response to Daughter of God, Gee Malik Linton’s unreleased version of Exposed, November, 2022.
Gee Malik Linton, director of Daughter of God, wearing a black turtleneck and black winter jacket, sits on a terrace in Brooklyn, sirens regularly cutting in from below, forcing him to pause.
“I hope Daughter of God affects you some way, good or bad. Both are good reactions,” Linton says to my students via Zoom, answering their questions regarding his film, shot seven years earlier on the streets of Washington Heights. God focuses on the Dominican population that makes up both that vibrant community and a large part of my Bronx Community College student population a bit east who viewed his unreleased film, along with fellow students of mine at Queensborough Community College and at St. John’s University.
The story of how he came to speak with my students in late Fall 2022, and how Daughter of God starring Ana De Armas, Keanu Reeves and Mira Sorvino, will be having its theatrical premiere this April at the 2023 Wisconsin Film Festival, is a byzantine, challenging story that matches the byzantine, challenging plot of the film itself, which was taken out of his hands, reedited, and released with his name removed in 2016 as Exposed.
A “Really Bad Movie”?
Glenn Kenny in the New York Times described Exposed as “a heartfelt but ineptly crafted story.” The L.A. Times review by Michael Rechtstaffen led with the headline “Keanu’s latest is ‘Exposed’ as a really bad movie,” referring to star Keanu Reeves, who encouraged director Linton to make the movie and later also encouraged him to restore it to his original vision. As Rechstaffen continued, “it’s hard to imagine how anything salvageable could have been made out of [Linton’s] comically pretentious script with its heavily religious overtones and plotting that grows more ridiculous by the minute.” It’s not that they’re wrong: the version released to an unsuspecting public in 2016, Exposed, is a disaster.
Kenny noted a specific moment from the film that made him wary of what Linton’s original might be like (both reviewers were aware that Exposed was not the film’s original cut): “When the supporting player Christopher MacDonald asks Mr. Reeves, “You ever seen one of those ant farms?” with precisely the intonation Peter Graves used to inquire about “gladiator movies” in “Airplane!,” my own interest in viewing a director’s cut plummeted even further.”
“The edit is the most important thing”
While undeniably sometimes a desperation cut-down can be the result of producers rightfully diagnosing a disaster, the fact that Linton was able to boldly remove his name from his first film, a process that involved arbitration involving the Director’s Guild of America, should signal that whatever he initially came up with was very, very, severely different from what Lionsgate unleashed with little fanfare to a minimal theatrical run and Video on Demand release, credited to one “Declan Dale” (the name was one offered on a list to Linton by the D.G.A.)
And while Kenny couldn’t know this, the line he singled out as an example of what made him distrustful of any alternative cut is in fact not in Linton’s version of the film, put together with Oscar-nominated editor Herve de Luze, in Paris. It is from a scene involving Reeves, whose part was highlighted in the released cut to the detriment of all else in the film; to do this, the producers reinstated bits and pieces involving Reeves that Linton had decided not to use.
“Most people don’t get a chance to see what happens in the editing room. You can turn a movie into a totally different thing. The edit is the most important thing,” Linton explained to my students, who had just viewed both Linton’s director’s cut and the disemboweled release cut.
Despite a different structure, a reinstated, wholly developed depiction of Dominican life in the Heights, and the restoration of the predominantly Spanish dialogue that was removed or redubbed into English for the Lionsgate release, perhaps the greatest aspect of Daughter of God that is restored in Linton’s cut is the heart of the film, then-unknown actress Ana De Armas’ performance as Isabel, the troubled protagonist.
The producers clearly intended to emphasize the idea that this film wasn’t a deliberately paced, increasingly surreal drama with supernatural overtones about faith, guilt, and repressed memories, featuring in support an abusive cop who regains his humanity while investigating the murder of his corrupt partner. Instead, this was a Keanu Reeves thriller focused on a cop who doesn’t regain much of anything in Exposed’s 90-plus minutes of running time, including credits.
Linton’s cut is 128 minutes sans credits.
The major delinquency committed by those who took the film over from Linton is the violation of De Armas’ brave and delicate performance, one that builds to an astonishing multiple-minute single-take close-up that climaxes the film. If the film was handled properly, it might have sewn-up an Oscar nomination in 2016 for De Armas. Instead, the take, and her overall performance, was ruinously abbreviated in the release cut.
Below, the trailer for Exposed, which barely features De Armas and sells the film as a typical cop thriller:
In Linton’s cut, De Armas’ Isabel is the heart and soul of her Heights community, which makes the trials she goes through more bewildering and disquieting, as the community that professes its love for her mostly turns against her. The studio hack job executed on the film turns Isabel from a complex, engaged member of her community into a rather isolated religious eccentric whom everyone thinks is nuts as she starts experiencing visitations from disturbing albino angels whose significance she keeps misinterpreting (and whose role is largely marginalized in Exposed, though they do make a few truncated appearances, literally revoiced with different dialogue than what Linton had intended).
How did I get involved? In my burgeoning, unofficial role as champeener of lost director’s cuts, I spent the better part of the last year getting word out about Peter Bogdanovich’s brilliant original version of She’s Funny That Way titled Squirrels to the Nuts, and then exhibited it everywhere from the Museum of Modern Art in New York last March to the Melbourne, Australia Cinematheque this coming June.
It was probably summer of last year when I simply thought “whatever happened to that Exposed director’s cut I had heard about back in 2016?” There was some discussion of it at the time, both in published reviews such as Kenny’s, and in blogs. Linton held some “underground screenings” but any interest in it had seemingly faded in the following half-decade. As happens, his cut had leaked onto the internet, where I tracked it down.
I watched it and was astonished; it is a challenging work, an imperfect thing of beauty that demands patience as it gradually pulls back the veil on how Isabel’s angelic visions, her efforts to protect a local abused child, and Reeves’ struggle to understand his partner’s murder relate. Many films have a surprise ending, such as The Sixth Sense, that recontextualize much of what you’ve seen before, forcing you to rethink the entire film. Most of them, however, are clearly defined genre films so that surprise and shock are part and parcel with their dramatic archetypes, whether Sense, Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, or James Mangold’s Identity.
Daughter of God is something different, as it ambitiously plays as a kind of “kitchen-sink ” drama about the Heights, focusing on the minute-to-minute details of how the day unfolds in an area where religion is at the forefront but not all truly believe, where a tight-knit community means mistakes of the past can never truly be escaped, where the cop and the criminal both act to degrade the human personality of those trying to build a reasonable future despite a marginalized status.
What confuses audiences who are out of practice at being genuinely challenged is that the film plays like a straight “kitchen-sink realism” drama akin to Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey for much of its running time, when De Armas’ tortured protagonist Isabel is in the end more akin to Laura Palmer in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, a victim of imperishable forces she doesn’t understand and can’t control. Unlike Laura, Isabel is able to fight back, but at what cost? Reeves’ initially troubling Detective takes on more and more of an “Agent Cooper” role as his concern for Isabel’s well-being forces him to come out of a self-imposed exile engendered by his wife’s death. Both initially avoiding his own son and treating the Heights’ residents with increasing callousness and brutality, Reeves’ Detective becomes an ironic light in the darkness, the one person on Isabel’s side as events unfold, even when he doesn’t understand why.
All of that is gone from Exposed — to give one example, an early scene of Reeves’ Detective taking Isabel’s wedding ring from a crime evidence bag and wearing it on his hand, representing his growing concern for her, has been repurposed in Exposed to signify he’s returning his own wedding band to his finger after having removed it following his wife’s death. The more eccentric and poetic meaning of Linton’s scene is wholly changed into a more cliched act on Reeves’ part by the editing hands behind Exposed.
Is it any wonder that Linton reports that director Christopher Nolan, who was then the chairperson at the D.G.A. of credit arbitration cases such as Linton went through with Daughter of God/Exposed, sent Linton a note after the case was settled that he loved Linton’s version, hated the recut, and looked forward to whatever Linton would make next?
What is going on in cinema? Having seen firsthand what can happen to a legendary director’s final feature with Peter Bogdanovich’s Squirrels to the Nuts and now what can happen to a first-time director’s simultaneously precise and large-scale vision, even with an actor of Keanu Reeves’ stature in his corner, I wonder if any film escapes post-production today without nervous producers with unsound instincts ripping it to shreds, all that much easier with digital editing.
Little more elucidation is needed as to why Exposed was mangled than Linton’s disclosure that “During the first edit of the film, a producer came to me and said, two months after finishing shooting, “I finally read the script last night on the plane from L.A.” This is the guy who sold the movie! It got sold as a “Keanu thriller” by someone who didn’t even know what I was shooting, what the actors had signed up for.”
So my involvement? Well, having gotten hold of Linton’s vastly superior cut online, I reached out and asked if he’d be up for my screening it for my students for a project, particularly as my Bronx Community College class was largely made up of Dominicans, who, while not quite in the Heights, were within walking distance. I also did think in the back of my mind that this is the time for Linton’s vision to reemerge, as indeed the “unknown actress,” Ana De Armas, whose part was sacrificed to re-engineer the film into a cop thriller, was now justifiably one of the hottest actresses on Earth, having received acclaim for her work in Knives Out, Blade Runner 2049, No Time to Die, and her difficult lead role as Marilyn Monroe in the controversial Blonde which ultimately lead to her 2023 Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
I knew this film, Gee Malik Linton’s Daughter of God, not “Declan Dale”’s Exposed, had to be seen, had to become the film of record.
For better or worse!
No doubt some will absolutely dislike Linton’s version of God with its deliberate pace and unusual construction. It led to a St. John’s student arguing “Daughter of God was an absolute mess. Firstly, there are many scenes where strange things happen, without any explanation. The plot is extremely hard to follow, as we are constantly flipping between two different plot lines. I personally think there is too much subtlety, to the point where the film is confusing. Also, the film is far too long, there is simply too much information to process.”
A Bronx Community College student also rejected it, arguing “I just couldn’t follow what was going on…. The film… was constantly jumping between different storylines that made it very difficult to follow …there wasn’t enough urgency to continue pushing forwards the main plot, and it made the movie somewhat annoying to watch.”
And yet. And yet…as I continued reading student responses, a different narrative took hold.
“Every scene and misdirection was calculated and intentional…”
A fellow St John’s student offered a sensitive reaction I believe many might have to the film: “Daughter of God by Gee Malik Linton seems incoherent, sloppy, and intriguing. It is difficult for the viewer to piece together a coherent storyline throughout most of the film. The director, Linton, chose to cut the film in seemingly random spots and scenes, almost as if he was half asleep while directing the film. In reality, every scene and misdirection was calculated and intentional, and pieced together, I see Linton curated a phenomenal storyline.
Besides the exciting cuts, many scenes incorporate strange characters and elements. These scenes add to the film’s mystery, not allowing the viewer to put together the pieces until the very end. In the last sequence, after we run out of guesses about the film, Linton clarifies the plot….
Daughter of God… is a beautiful mess. However, Declan Dale’s Exposed comes off as artificial….[and] downgraded the movie by removing multiple strategic scenes and seemingly “sloppy cuts” in the initial film. Instead, alternate cuts were incorporated to make the plot unambiguous for the viewer. These differences affected the movie to the same degree that adding water to a fabulous bottle of wine would affect your night; it is ruined. This is the case because to an extent, the updated cuts decreased the intimacy between the characters and the viewer. Consequently, the plot becomes more distant. This is strongly exemplified in Exposed, where many Spanish-spoken scenes are removed, adding to the unnaturalness.”
“Daughter of God is genius”
The reviews from both students from the Bronx who live in circumstances very close to those represented in God, and St. John’s, where many (not all) of the students come from more suburban backgrounds, proved largely rapturous in their response to God, especially as seen in the light of Exposed, viewed the week after. Some choice comments:
- “It is an amazing, disturbing, haunting female-centered drama exploring cultural and religious aspects of Latino & black families & dealing with extreme pain & trying to cope…this harrowing movie has so much to offer…“
- “One big factor was the amount of cultural realness that Linton brought with the Spanish dialogue and English subtitles. By taking many Spanish-language scenes out and redubbing others into English, the recut Exposed didn’t give the realistic immersion into the Hispanic-dominant neighborhood of the Heights, where 95% of the film took place. A considerable amount of Ana De Armas’ character’s domestic life was taken out in Exposed, leaving viewers to think she should be booted into a psych ward. The simple act of the cultural life being cut gives a completely different panorama of the community and of Isabella, who plays a much bigger, richer role in her community in Exposed.”
- “A spiritual, suspenseful, and mysterious story”
- “A psychological drama with a deeper meaning”
- “Daughter of God is genius, it has a tremendous amount of detail which engages the audience, and even when rewatching it you feel like you’re still noticing new things.”
- “Linton’s original cut has this feeling of purity and authenticity. I absolutely love [its] complexity, authenticity, and suspense”
- “This drastic change makes the released version have a completely different feel, and the authenticity and realness that Daughter Of God provides is totally gone. It feels like Lionsgate, who changed and released Exposed, wanted to make this film feel more “Hollywood” and have less of the natural feel of the original version.”
- “This movie takes us along the journey of a range of emotions from relating, to confusion, to sadness, to shock, but all leads up to an ending you may be completely blindsided by.”
- “Daughter of God was interesting because Isabel reminded me of myself being so connected to my faith. My whole life I was told by my parents or other elders of my faith that I was always surrounded by god and his angels. For example, my abuelita would tell us stories on how the devil can overcome you. The Exposed version was one of the choppiest films I have ever seen…the plot was not explained properly because of the missing scenes throughout”
- “My confusion kept me almost obsessed with this movie…I was angry at [this movie] but good angry.”
My students generated questions for Linton to answer they would incorporate into their assignment (you didn’t think I’d show it to them just for fun, did you? This was an MLA citation project!)
Asked about his inspiration for Daughter of God, he disclosed that the project was built out of three previous projects, which he termed “urban poems”: one called Razor and was meant to star Danny Glover, but it fell through. Another was titled Warrior, about a little girl in Brooklyn, who reads the Art of War and becomes a kind of urban warrior; the final project that inspired Daughter of God was Fantasy, which sprung out of a moment when Linton was on the subway and imagined someone floating, which indeed is a key inciting incident in God. He had worked as a personal trainer for a while with Toby McGuire, and after discussing a cool image he thought would be good for a Spiderman film, he repurposed it for his own “angel story.”
But the key inspiration for Daughter of God, it turns out, was partially based on a personal story: “I was the child of rape – my mom was fourteen when it happened. How she handled it is similar to Isabelle’s story in God.”
Another autobiographical element was how Washington Heights made quite an impression on Linton when he lived there for a period:
“When I was in college I lived for a period up in Washington Heights. I’m Jamaican, and we’re very low-key, quiet. I was blown away by the Dominicans. It was the most unbelievable experience of my life up to that point. Everybody stayed up until four in the morning. Nobody went to sleep. You have this whole hodgepodge of interrelated cultures, and everyone sort of fits in. You have the banker, the doctor, the lawyer, the priest, the drug dealer, all in the neighborhood and there’s nevertheless this communal, family vibe, and I had never seen that, and I really wanted to bring that world to the screen, how Isabel is not only connected to her family, but she’s connected to the community, and what happens when those connections are tested by the “miracles” she’s witnessing and the tests of faith she undergoes.”
“I wanted to have the film being authentic, a dual-language film. In New York, in certain communities, you won’t even hear English spoken. So I wanted a realistic portrayal of one of our most vibrant communities, not a Hollywood version.”
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of God, that while not wholly removed from Exposed, is heavily edited and neutered: the visions of angels that haunt Isabel throughout.
Linton explains “when it first came to me, my image of the angels were more traditional. But when I was writing it, I wanted to make it a more spectacular representation, to craft something completely subjective, with an otherworldly character. I wanted to initially have the mouth covered, since Isabelle is unable to speak about what has triggered the angel’s appearance, and chose to have an Asian actor to portray the role, as it would feel especially alien for a Dominican in the Heights, throwing her off. The colors of the angels represent various stages of the angel, what it means to her. The white angel with its purity is more personal to her, the red symbolizes the violence that has been unfolding as the story progresses, and then the angel is seen in black as reality and her visions come ever-closer to colliding.”
The students asked about how it was as a first-time director handling such delicate subject matter and working with actors of stature such as Reeves and De Armas.
SPOILER ALERT IN THE PARAGRAPH BELOW
“The actors sell it,” Linton told them. “When I met Ana, who was suggested to me by Keanu as they had worked on Knock, Knock together, the story’s most difficult aspects is what she connected to. We’re doing a film a year before the #metoo movement took center stage, but ostensibly it’s a “girl power” story. As for the climactic, one-take rape scene shot all in close-up on De Armas’ face, he explains “it was very sensitive. We discussed it extensively. I wanted to be able to show this rape without even the possibility of, no scintilla of, eroticism to it. I had written it as a long scene, and Ana is just the most marvelous actress. She is just fantastic. The scene came out as how I imagined it, thanks to Ana’s commitment.”
END OF SPOILERS
As for how he got Keanu Reeves for the project, Linton explained that Reeves was set to star in an action film Linton wrote, an “Asian Triad mafia kung-fu thing” that Chuck Russell was going to direct. Reeves ultimately decided that he didn’t want to do that, but he liked Linton’s writing and said “let’s just make your little Spanish film.” Linton wasn’t even thinking of that film, which was Daughter of God, after Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away, cancelling the initial production: “It wasn’t even on my radar at that point, but Keanu encouraged me.”
Directing the actors wasn’t hard, because “actors are amazing.” As for De Armas, Linton enthused “We met and had the most beautiful sibling-like relationship that happened immediately. She is a marvelous talent, sickeningly talented! Acting is all about casting. You bring in the best of everybody. Everyone went way beyond what I wrote. The actors, the department heads, the film becomes theirs, and they do it far better than I would have conceived.”
One anecdote Linton shared with the aspiring filmmakers amongst my students was that “one of my producers told me ‘Listen, enjoy the night before shooting, because starting the next day, you do not understand the level of ‘busy” you will be. I had been working on a lot of movies up to that, but actually directing it – we shot for 33 days, started on a Wednesday, started at 6 am, it was quiet and chill, they were putting everything together for a 730 start. Right before 7:30 and for the next 33 days, all I heard was “Gee! Gee!! Gee!! Where should the blue car go? Where should this and that? It never ended.”
“It’s an Impossible Movie”
As for the recutting, Linton is surprisingly sanguine about it. The forced recut is because of producers wanting to produce a Keanu Reeves film, but not actually paying attention to what Keanu Reeves film they were making.
“Making a movie with Keanu, it’s being sold and being moved without anyone reading anything. When you have a well-known actor like Keanu, he wants a guaranteed greenlight. So he had money set up at Lionsgate, but it turns out they wanted to work with him so much, they didn’t read the script. It got sold as a “Keanu thriller” – it’s not Lionsgate’s fault ,they didn’t know what they had, honestly. Lionsgate gave me an opportunity to buy the movie back for $12 million dollars, for the budget and to pay for ancillary rights. They gave me 5 days to have 12 million in the bank, assuming that I couldn’t do it.”
“However, I had a French investor who came up with the money in four days. There’s a lot of moving parts to this story, but Lionsgate was happy, they wanted to get out of releasing the movie, but at the last minute, the producer had sold it in ways that made it impossible to sell it back to me. Lionsgate didn’t actually own the movie. It taught me a lot. I look at that story, I learned so many valuable lessons and met so many fantastic people. It’s an impossible movie, I don’t blame anyone for Exposed – but I learned so many lessons and met so many lovely people, and have done so many wonderful things since as a result of the battle over Daughter of God.”
“The cut that I have – the director’s cut – we weren’t able to completely polish it, with the right music, etc.. But honestly, I really kind of like it as this weird, outsider art that has created its own little niche from those who seek it out. Honestly, I love how it’s sort of grown into this unique beast with a story connected to it.”
Reeves broached with Linton the idea of restoring his version of the film and encouraged him to do so, and through this Linton learned what he feels is the key lesson of filmmaking he took from God: “The single biggest lesson is the most important person on a movie is the editor. When I went to Paris to do my reedit, and I want to thank Keanu for encouraging that, I called Herve de Luze, Oscar-nominated for Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, and he said he couldn’t help, he had holiday for his family. I called him ten times a day for a week to get him to work!”
“de Luze called back and said “ok, I’ll do the movie. Send me the film.” When I got out to Paris, and I had this elaborate suite, a team of editors, so I brought my wife and two kids, we were going to be there for four months. Herve is wonderful fatherly figure, sweet man, who had done a first, rough edit in the three weeks before I came. So I came to the editing suite the next morning, and they editing techs looked at me like I was crazy. Herve is looking at me like I have three heads.
So I went out of the editing suite and asked the tech guys “Do you think I shouldn’t be here?” And they said “No you shouldn’t be there. Let the maestro do this by himself, do his magic.” And it was literally the best advice I ever had. I’m not an editor, let the editor do his magic! If you look at my script, he significantly changed it. I had done a previous edit exactly like my script, and it was horrible. He did an edit that was changed around, and it was more like the script even though it wasn’t like my script.”
In April, the 2023 Wisconsin film festival hosts the official U.S. theatrical premiere of this “unique beast,” Daughter of God, restoring Linton’s wholly superior cut and De Armas’ multilayered performance in the year of her Oscar nomination for Marilyn. As for my next director’s cut to unearth and support? Well, I’ll leave Welles’ Ambersons for someone else to unearth, but here’s hoping I can track down Blake Edwards’ A Fine Mess with its piano-moving sequence restored!