Thursday 21 April 2016

Dark (2015)

Director: Nick Basile
Writer: Elias, from a story by Nick Basile and Elias
Stars: Whitney Able, Alexandra Breckenridge, Brendan Sexton III and Michael Eklund
I enjoy discovering new films at Apocalypse Later, whether they’re part of a project I’m working or merely happened to be submitted for review. This is one from the latter category, but it was a gimme because of the names involved. The most obvious to many will be that of Joe Dante, the executive producer, but I’m a fan of a few others too. The screenplay was written by Elias, who wrote and directed Gut. The leads are all established names: Whitney Able notable for Monsters, Alexandra Breckenridge for The Walking Dead and Michael Eklund for Errors of the Human Body, amongst many others. So, I wasn’t going to pass up on the opportunity to see a thriller from these folks that was enticingly set in New York during the Northeast Blackout of 2003. That power outage, which affected 55 million people, was the second most widespread in history at that time and it contributed to twelve deaths, though this film isn’t a fictional spin on any of them, rather a character study of a troubled woman’s paranoia building with deadly effect.

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?
There are good moments for Kate; she giggles at couples making out on the subway and at street artists poledancing in the carriage. But there are bad ones too and they add up; each of them adds another item to our growing checklist of what might be wrong with her. She drops a bottle in the apartment but there’s no kitchen roll to clean it up because she’s not focused on actually living there. Without much thought to where she is, she wanders over a crossroads without looking and nearly gets hit by a car. Sure, the traffic lights are out because of the blackout but we wonder how comfortable she is in this neighbourhood. John the neighbour knocks on their door to check on how wide the outage is and the conversation is awkward to say the least. When she tracks down some candles and a battery powered boombox, she leafs through old photos and doesn’t seem happy to see most of them. We see her old hospital bracelet in the box too, but we’re left guessing as to why she had one. Well, for a while at least.

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.
If this picture was always going to hang on the performance of Whitney Able, there are some interesting cinematic tricks in play to support her. One that’s used at a few key points is oddly jagged editing. When Kate visits a bar in a kinky black outfit with a padlock around her neck, she gets talking to Benoit. During their opening conversation, before he’s even bought her a drink, the editor cuts out the boring stuff and leaves in the key lines, which is routine enough until we realise that the dialogue often overlaps between cuts. I honestly wondered if there was a lipsync issue when I first saw this, but it’s consistently done and restricted to a couple of key scenes. Presumably the goal is to show Kate disconnecting from reality, as she does especially well back at the apartment when we’re wondering what happened to Benoit. I’m still not sure where he goes. One minute she tells him to get lost, the next she invites him in but then he’s never seen again, even though we watch Kate’s half of a conversation that we expect to be with him.

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?
And that leads to another key question. Are we supposed to read this entirely straight or assume that it’s partly the product of hallucination? Certainly she seems to leave a voicemail for Leah using a dead phone and listen to music on a silent boombox, so the latter seems possible but the former just as likely. If some of it is taking place only in Kate’s head, where’s the point at which that begins? I could argue that it’s the point she asks Benoit in because a heady combination of paranoia, alcohol and guilt would explain a few things, but I’m not convinced. I think we’re supposed to read it straight and trust that Kate’s hallucinating is happening without having to see it. That makes the ending particularly brutal but leaves us questions as to the how of it all. It’s beautifully shot, Kate wandering the balconies and flashing her camera to see, but a blackout doesn’t stop our ears from working. Given that the admirably diverse soundtrack features Johnny Thunders, Dead Can Dance and Nina Simone, we’re aware of what we hear and what we don’t.

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.
I can’t say I enjoyed Dark but then it’s not the sort of film one enjoys. I appreciated what it did and where the story took Kate, even as I wanted to know more about her background. I enjoyed the supporting cast even if none of them had much screen time and it was always used to build Kate rather than themselves. Alexandra Breckenridge gets some time early and uses it well; she was enticing enough to make me feel that I should be a lesbian. Redman gets one scene as a doorman who recognises and welcomes Kate and thus makes us realise that she hasn’t always been dark. Michael Eklund is oddly off during his scenes but it’s very possible that he did that deliberately; Benoit may hold a key in this story but he’s not developed far enough for me to understand what it is. Brendan Sexton III may be the best of them though, as John; I wasn’t sold on his underplayed initial scene but loved his return very much under the influence of booze. I wonder if watching the film drunk would render it even more effective. Maybe I should experiment.

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