TORONTO - Hunted by police, a gun-toting gangster and his posse take refuge in a creaky, labyrinthine house haunted by ghosts that turn out be the spirits of his dead children.
Awaiting him on the top floor is his cancer-stricken wife, her lover and her naked elderly father, chained to a bed post.
Comically over-the-top narration offers some measure of context for the bizarre black-and-white fantasy in Guy Maddin's latest big-screen vision "Keyhole," but it's a bizarre reverie that even star Jason Patric says he had trouble wrapping his mind around.
"The original script was probably longer than 'The Odyssey' but it's one of those things where I didn't really understand it," Patric admitted during a round of interviews at the Toronto International Film Festival, when he detailed a typical exchange he would have with Maddin on set.
"Literally, it was just every moment of (me asking): 'What is this? Where are we here? What time is it?' and 'What happened?' and 'What is this connected to?' So, in a lot of ways it was a good acting exercise."
While typical for the Winnipeg-bred Maddin, such surreal fare is relatively new territory for the 45-year-old Patric.
The former teen pin-up says he met Maddin in 2005 at Roger Ebert's annual film festival Ebertfest, where his film "After Dark, My Sweet" appeared on the lineup alongside Maddin's "The Heart of the World."
"I thought he made an amazing little movie there, especially for the money and everything. And then we were just frankly talking. Unlike most actors in a Hollywood-setting where you're going and trying to find out how to get your next job, which turns my stomach, I was just sitting talking to someone who I enjoyed talking to," he says.
"And then maybe six years later he said, 'I wrote this thing if you take a look at it. By the way, we're going to film in about a month.' So I looked at it, and of course there was the caveat of Winnipeg, which, no matter what it was I would go to Winnipeg, and that was that."
Patric's earlier mention of the "The Odyssey" is no casual aside — references to Homer's epic journey run rampant through "Keyhole."
Patric stars as the world-weary gangster Ulysses, who returns home after a long absence to reunite with his wife Hyacinth, played by Isabella Rossellini, and vanquish his enemy.
Maddin acknowledges he was inspired by Homer's adventure tale about the Greek hero Odysseus and his journey back to his wife Penelope.
"I just wanted a good strong plot that I could hang my obsessions on and when I read 'The Odyssey' I realized that's a really strong simple plot that still delights and surprises," says Maddin, whose latest film was commissioned by the Wexner Centre for the Arts of Ohio State University.
The B-movie gangster element comes by way of a fascination with the Bowery Boys and "The Untouchables."
"These sort of people all holed up in a house seems to be a standard vocabulary unit of gangster films," Maddin notes.
"I don't even know what period this movie is supposed to be set in. I know I've had the publicist remove reference to the '30s.... I feel like I've some sort of boyhood notion of what gangsters (are about), I've just sort of added a 2010 layer on top of that... so it's of no particular period.
"I'm not really as obsessed with the past as people think. I just, living in Winnipeg, I don't like the present so much."
Although stymied by elements of the script, Patric says he was excited by the prospect of tackling such unconventional material.
"I want to just go out there and do something so completely out of bounds with the way the movie business is today," says Patric, who rose to stardom as a brooding teen vampire hunter in 1987's "The Lost Boys" before going on to a mix of mainstream and indie projects including 1990's "After Dark, My Sweet," the edgy 1991 drug drama "Rush," the star-packed 1996 ensemble "Sleepers" and 1997's popcorn feature "Speed 2: Cruise Control."
"I think Guy knows the kind of actor that I am and I try to be — it's just to find real behavioural realism and moments because I feel that's lost in movies today. Everybody in movies today acts like they're acting in a movie and that's boring to me. And so (I asked myself): 'In this sort of whirling haze of surrealism, could you have someone who's trying to make sense of it, like we do in a dream?'"
Maddin, too, admits that parts of his own film were bewildering.
"There were times where neither of us knew (what was happening), I'm embarrassed to admit. I got kind of lost because in the process of hacking down the script sometimes I'd left some unsightly scars I couldn't make sense of," he says.
"There were some moments where we couldn't proceed until we'd huddle and try to figure things out. Those ended up being my favourite parts of the movie where we kind of threw some Hail Mary passes just as the union was clamping down on the day."
"Keyhole" opens in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal on Friday, in Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg on April 20 and in Saskatoon on May 11.