Writer: Elias, from a story by Nick Basile and Elias
Stars: Whitney Able, Alexandra Breckenridge, Brendan Sexton III and Michael Eklund
She’s Kate, a former model from Brooklyn who’s recently moved into the New York apartment of Leah, her girlfriend, who is about to head out for the weekend on business. That’ll leave Kate on her own at a tough time in their relationship. You might think that their moving in together bodes well for their future, but it’s not that simple. Kate is clearly a troubled soul with a troubled history, even if that history isn’t detailed in the script, and it’s already overflowing into their life together. Kate’s started smoking again, even though Leah hates it; Kate wants her lover to pull her hair and strangle her during sex, which Leah really doesn’t want to do; and Kate is even having difficulty unpacking from the move: the moment Leah heads out to work, she’s on the phone looking for a new place. Then again, she’s an exercise in contrasts, suggesting schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or some other mental torment that pits her against herself. How else can we buy into a yoga teacher who smokes nervously?
As you can imagine, this story revolves almost exclusively around Kate and, fortunately, Whitney Able is up to the task. In fact, she draws us into her tormented life so capably that it’s only after the film is over that we start to wonder why we were so engrossed, given that we really don’t like her. She’s certainly not a sympathetic character hooking us because she reminds us a little of ourselves. If anything, we’re more likely to associate with the characters around her: Leah, the grounded girlfriend who’s wondering why it isn’t working the way she thought it would; John, the awkward neighbour who just wants someone to talk to; even Benoit, the French Canadian she meets at a club and who wants to walk her home. Throughout all of this, we’re very aware that it isn’t these folk causing her troubles, it’s her causing her own. There’s little doubt that Kate is her own worst enemy and that’s the hardest sort of character for an actor to try to inhabit because the better they do at it, the less we’re going to care.
Elias clearly wanted us to think about what his script was saying. We’ve seen the dysfunction growing in Kate and Leah’s life. We’ve seen the marks on her body that Benoit sees and reacts to. We’ve had shots where Kate revels in her rebellious behaviour; if Leah doesn’t want her to smoke, she’ll smoke right into a powerful camera she’s using to snap increasingly wild shots of herself. But we’ve also had shots where she seems to hate what she’s doing and hate herself for doing it. I know Elias dropped a whole bunch of clues for us to hone in on because I caught some of them, but others seemed more cryptic, at least on a first viewing; maybe a second will shed some more light on Dark, as it were. I wonder if there are enough to really piece together Kate’s former life. I get that she had attempted suicide, but I don’t know when or why. I saw hints at some of the latter but I don’t know if I was reading them wrong. Was she overreacting, for instance, to John’s drunken performance because of paranoia or because of personal history?
Dark was crowdfunded on Kickstarter, raising just over $50,000 in 2013, and much of it is up there on the screen for us to see. The title refers both to the darkness caused by the Northeast Blackout, which is very effective as a backdrop, and the darkness inside Kate’s head, but it doesn’t refer to the images we watch. We can always see what we need to see in this film, which was particularly refreshing in a movie all about darkness. I’ve seen too many movies recently that were either shot, mastered or projected too dark to be really watchable. One, which admittedly took place entirely at night, felt like a radio play with occasional visual elements rather than an actual feature film. I wondered if a picture called Dark would play into that from conscious decision making but I’m happy that it didn’t. It aimed instead for a claustrophobic feeling and succeeded in finding it. Scenes often run long but, through a combination of script, performance and camerawork, feel freaky and disjointed anyway because that’s how Kate is surely experiencing them.