Some films have that special something, and some films seem like they stepped in something. Allow me to help you know the difference, and maybe find you something good to watch.
DARK HORSE – unrated / its running time is either 84 minutes (wiki), 86 minutes (imdb) or 88 minutes (DVD). Regardless, it’s under an hour and a half, which seems really short, but you’d never know it by watching it.
Written and Directed by Todd Solondz / actors: Christopher Walken, Selma Blair, Jordan Gelber, Mia Farrow, Donna Murphy
Todd Solondz doesn’t make ‘feel-good’ movies.
In fact, he has a long history of making films (WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE (1995), HAPPINESS (1998), STORYTELLING (2001), PALINDROMES (2004), that intentionally make you uncomfortable.
His characters have problems. Big problems. Creepy problems. Massive personality issues that absolutely will NOT be solved in the third act of the film because these things are too much a part of their lives. His characters are emotionally disturbed, alienated, delusional, clinically depressed, and it usually involves some kind of sexual taboo. And I’m not talking about the tame vanilla-kink that everyone thinks of, like leather and latex, candle-wax drippings, and dressing up like stuffed animals.
I’m talking dark stuff, like: statutory rape, abortion, ‘underage’ masturbation, and pedophilia.
Yeah. Things that make you squirm in your seat. Gross stuff.
These are the things that his films are most known for, so it’s not surprising that mainstream audiences don’t embrace his films much beyond his first one (which is rather tame by comparison), but hold on, it’s not JUST about the shocks.
Solondz consistently creates compelling characters, writes intelligent, funny, human dialogue, and he gets amazing performances out of his actors. Sometimes subtle, sometimes powerful, he controls the ebb and flow of dramatic action with a master’s touch.
In fact, his latest, DARK HORSE, skips the shocking taboo topics altogether and instead relies on characterization, tone, great acting and solid writing. He still makes you uncomfortable by focusing on an obnoxious and socially awkward lead character, but there is no child molestation, et al, which makes the film quite a bit more approachable.
Abe (Jordan Gelber) is having trouble growing up. At 36, he’s still living in his parent’s home, collecting toys, working at his father’s (Walken) company, and blaming everyone else for his failure to succeed at life. To say he is socially awkward doesn’t seem adequate. He’s obnoxious, surely, but his paper-thin bravado masks an all-too-obvious desire to be accepted and respected, something which his pride and immaturity actively isolate him from. His behavior reminds me of Cartman, actually, of Southpark-fame. Just a bit, but more pathetic than funny.
So then Abe meets Miranda (Selma Blair) at a wedding. Miranda is a severely depressed and weary young woman who clearly doesn’t like Abe as much as Abe loves Miranda, but she lacks the energy to tell him no… so they agree to get married. But that’s just the beginning.
The film bounces between his new relationship, his family (Walken as his disappointed father, Mia Farrow as his supportive mother, Justin Bartha as his successful older Doctor-brother) and his fantasy-relationship with his father’s somewhat mousy secretary, Marie, played wonderfully by Donna Murphy.
Actually, I thought her performance was the standout of the film, a saucy surprise. In Abe’s delusional fantasies/dreams (which escalate as the film goes on, and IMHO they are what make this film really work), Marie is VERY different when she’s not in the office. I’m not going to say more, but I was quite impressed with what she accomplished with so little screen-time, and she has some of the best lines of the film.
Christopher Walken is superb in this, and not for the usual reasons. His character, Jackie, isn’t ‘weird’ at all (unless you count his hair, which is very) and he doesn’t have any big monologues. He is just a father that has grown old watching his son grow into a large, crude, incompetent man-child. Jackie is not only laconic in speech, he is laconic in movement, but it makes his every action significant. I love how subtle Walken is in this. He says so much with just a look, a gesture, or a sigh.
It is a largely-unspoken power-struggle between him and Abe, and that is one of the things Solondz does well so often, allowing things to remain unsaid, important things, and let the the subtext simmer, fade away, or boil over, depending on the needs of the scene.
DARK HORSE is perhaps still too dark and cynical for mainstream audiences, but for those brave souls who like their satire to have sharp teeth from within a derisive smirk, this is a film to watch.