Please Note: The images used here are stills provided by Vitagraph Films, and not taken from the Blu-ray edition under review.
"People say, 'Oh, you're mean-spirited, you're cruel.' I don't see it that way. I think there's a distinction between exposing cruelty and being cruel." - Todd Solondz
With Dark Horse, the oft-dismissed American auteur Todd Solondz adds another tile to his mosaic of no-way-out contemporary-life malaise, reaffirming his place as the comic-Jewish-American heir to Fassbinder (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) and peer of Michael Haneke (Caché). Like those European filmmakers, Solondz has a penetrating eye for both base human folly and the hell that lies at the end of any road paved with proverbial good intentions, and I suspect that the only reason he doesn't get the credit they do (though many have rejected them for their alleged "harshness," too) is that the world he knows intimately enough to dissect -- the sprawling upper-middle-class exurbs of New Jersey -- is both closer to us (American viewers) and more homely, with no Old-World backdrop to exoticize it or make it seem far away; there's no glamor there, and out of sheer integrity and respect for the place/people he comes from, Solondz refuses to add any. That applies equally to his latest gallery of lost, confused, often-misguided New Jersey suburbanites, this time playing out a love story that takes its characters' sometimes petty-seeming, amusing-at-first longings, fears, and frustrations quite seriously -- so seriously, in fact, that their creator makes every effort to see them, their problems, and their world as they are (unflattering as such a forthright glance might be) and not through the light in which they might best make us all feel better by "growing," being redeemed, or otherwise finding closure.
The self-described "dark horse" at the center of Solondz's latest offering, however, is clearly possessed of the belief, perkily yet cruelly reinforced by movies and pop music, that redemption, growth, and success are all in the cards for him. Abe Wertheimer (Boardwalk Empire's Jordan Gelber, here a disarmingly eager, guileless presence) is in his mid-thirties, works at his dad's (the hilariously tight-lipped, forbidding Christopher Walken, whose mere reaction shots are sometimes priceless) real-estate development business, and lives at home with his parents, in his childhood bedroom. Abe drives a bright-yellow Hummer, surrounds himself with movie and TV collectables, and spends most of the time he should be working snapping at his father; seething at his golden-boy, successful-California-doctor younger brother, Richard (Justin Bartha, The New Normal), and his bright-eyed, bushy-tailed cousin/coworker Justin (Zachary Booth, Keep the Lights On); shopping on eBay for more toys; or harassing Toys 'R' Us employees. Abe's childhood-nostalgic, perky-pop aspirations have led to a bravely maintained optimism on his part that frequently collapses into resentful, nihilistic, pseudo-suicidal despondency, whenever it finds itself at odds with an unyielding, complicated reality that coddles no-one. This overgrown baby has not one, but two mommy-figures to enable him: His biological mother (Mia Farrow, whose warmly humorous turn as a middle-class Jewish mom is briefer but just as remarkable as her transformation into a mob moll in Broadway Danny Rose) and Marie (Donna Murphy, The Bourne Legacy), his dad's middle-aged secretary, who has taken on the thankless task of keeping Abe (who in turn takes her for granted) out of hot water with the boss/father by habitually doing his work for him.
The blissfully, belligerently ignorant Abe is skating on thin ice with his folks and at work, but he think's he's set; all that's missing, in his view, is that special someone to settle down and have kids with, and that's where Miranda (Selma Blair, Hellboy II) comes in. In the film's opening scene -- a DJ'd wedding reception, dance floor ablaze with frenetic spontaneous choreography -- the camera makes a long pan past all the celebrants to land on Abe and Miranda sitting it out (as each of them does, in their own way, when it comes to most of life). That's enough in common for Abe, who draws a bead on the raven-haired, diffident, psychotropically-medicated Miranda as his future Mrs. Right, cornering her at the coat check, coercing her telephone number out of her and, later, taking an indifferent "maybe" to a date request as a "yes" and proposing on that very same first date, which takes place at Miranda's home under the glazed eyes of her parents, and to which Miranda shows up late because she's forgotten all about it. Even after a moment of horrified realization of what look like her limited options allows Miranda to accept Abe's proposal, there is hesitancy and increasingly disturbing revelations from this sort-of girlfriend (whom we've seen before, in Solondz's 2001 film Storytelling, as a college student with doomed literary/academic/romantic ambitions, and who now finds herself in the same childhood-bedroom situation as Abe, but with a more acute sense of loserdom and letdown after actually trying and failing at something, and carrying baggage that includes a condescendingly cosmopolitan ex-boyfriend, Mahmoud (The Daily Show's Aasaf Mandvi) and a disconcerting social disease). After his father tops off the Miranda worries by coldly awakening Abe to the facts long since accepted by everyone else who knows him -- that he's hanging by a thread at work and at home, that he's going to have to dig himself out of his comfortable rut -- Abe's reckless, enraged, self-destructive reaction leaves him in a hospital bed, fighting to survive, and Dark Horse becomes something like Solondz's answer to 8½, with figures from Abe's life (especially his mother, Mahmoud, and the demure Marie, whom he re-imagines as a tough-talking, no-bullshit "cougar" divorcée on the prowl) appearing in his subjective visions and expressing the brutally honest, self-critical voices in his head that he's managed to silence or ignore for so long.
It's no surprise that Abe's quest for love and fulfillment (deluded as it is, both by himself and by the narrowness of the consumer culture he, and we, live in) ends unhappily, typically sabotaged -- quite to the contrary of the chipper, cheerleading pop culture that gives him succor -- by the random, indifferent unfairness of life that Solondz continues to be attentive to and cognizant of without fail. What is slightly more surprising is Dark Horse's actual conclusion, with its wistfulness that takes us back, recalling the open-ended, dubiously uncertain, but markedly tender note on which we left the heroine of his seemingly best-liked film, Welcome to the Dollhouse: Here, Solondz finally de-centers Abe, the ostensible, unfortunate "hero" of the picture, and leaves us instead on a beautifully evocative shot of the eternally gracious, deferent, put-upon Marie, jarred from her own sweet, romantic revery about Abe (how long, we must wonder, has she been impossibly dreaming about him, in the same way he dreamed about finding his Miranda?) by the insistently ringing phones, business chatter, and paper-shuffling around her, which, we get the feeling, will go on and on regardless of how many emotions, hopes, and dreams are cherished, squandered, or destroyed to this office soundtrack of busy-bee "productiveness" (the business-milieu aura acts as just another soporific, distracting version of the endless loop of pop songs Abe has had on his ringtones and in his head). The visual strategy Solondz adopts for this strangely, profoundly moving final shot is indicative of both his usual strong, skilled visual economy (with which the film is replete, with the same meticulous attention to the mise-en-scène throughout -- all composing, framing, and suburban-home detail, color, and lighting honed to give off exactly the right unglamorous, lived-in, yet subtly tragicomic tone -- along with the sparing but highly effective movements of cinematographer Andrij Parekh's (Blue Valentine) high-def-digital RED camera) and his restrained but powerful way of making meaning in visual terms: It's a very slow dolly out from a close-up on Marie at her desk that re-frames her, before we cut to black, as someone silent, neglected, near-forgotten amid the drearily droning-on business that must be attended to despite any real feelings, needs, or despair she might be suffering through. Solondz feels deeply for such feelings, needs, and despair, but he refuses to offer artificial reassurance or unnecessarily contrived nobility by cordoning them off, away from the prosaic, oppressive demands and insufficient compensations of the way we live, when in fact the way of life we all seem to have accepted or succumbed to and the disappointment of our higher yearnings and ideals couldn't have more to do with each other. Marie has, in her way, been the same as Abe (and, implicitly, anyone else, regardless of superficial differences in personality, education, success, etc.), sad and deluded and putting on a brave front while she waits for that something better that the movies and songs promise but that never seems to materialize; she, Abe, and probably everyone else are stuck in the same trap, and the tragedy is that the falsely comforting isolation in which their entirely understandable fantasy escape hatches leave them to helplessly languish makes it so very difficult, even potentially impossible, for them to see that their burdens are shared.
This habit Solondz has, of "reducing" everyone to the same state, has been characterized by his detractors as cruel, demeaning, condescending, and gleefully sadistic, but isn't all that just the wincing that comes when the Band-Aid of escapism is pulled off, revealing that the ways we feel we're "better" or "worse" than one another need to be thought out more fully, in order to examine the very convincingly present wound the storyteller sees in life? Rather, Solondz strikes this reviewer as very, very generous and equitable, and in a highly principled, meaningful, and valuable way that's exceedingly rare in any form of cinematic storytelling. Yes, he "damns" every character, every person to the same limbo, to be uncertainly torn forever between our good, moral impulses and our base, petty willingness to push and pull each other down to get ahead and get our own needs and desires fulfilled. But that acknowledgment that we're all in this mess together, like it or not -- even with its accompanying, discombobulating insistence that a movie can depict the situation but cannot offer solution or salvation -- is still something triumphant. Dark Horse entertainingly and thought-provokingly demonstrates that Solondz continues to be an important figure in the cinema -- one who uses his imagination, his you're-screwed-either-way gallows humor (one of the greatest gifts Jewish culture continues to give to humankind, whether manifested through Woody Allen, Larry David, the Coen Brothers, David Grossman, or Sarah Silverman), and his exquisitely anguished sense of continually violated morality to spin distinctive, darkly funny, uniquely sad tales that remind us that nobody is any more or less than human, and that entice and galvanize us into really considering and pondering what that means.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The film is presented at its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio via an AVC/MPEG4, 1080p transfer. Andrij Parek's RED-camera digital cinematography is conveyed very well, without any noticeable edge enhancement, aliasing, or other artifacts to speak of. All the different "looks" in the film -- the boxed-in, fluorescent-lit gray-whites of offices, the warmer tones and brighter colors for domestic interiors and costumes, even some brief, richly luminous, sunlit dream-moments -- look solid, bright, sharp, and clear, with natural-looking skin tones and stability when certain scenes or sections of the image are darker or black.
It's difficult to tell whether the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack only highlights an innate (intentional?) over-loudness of the film's music in contrast to dialogue mixed too low (much more noticeable at home than it was at the cinema) or whether this is purely a function of the audio as presented on disc, but it is a mild, intermittent issue that had me reaching several times for the volume control so that I could adjust to both make out the dialogue and not set off car alarms in my neighborhood when music came up. Other than that apparent imbalance, everything sonic is clear and sharp, with no hissing, crackles, distortion, or other audio problems to mar the experience.
Unfortunately, absolutely nothing -- not even a trailer.
Perhaps the most bitterly funny, genuinely sad story the undeservedly notorious Todd Solondz has told so far, Dark Horse is still of a piece with the writer/director's body of work, mapping out another bit of territory in his lonely, doomed mission to create a moral, honest corrective to a culture and society he clearly sees as amoral (at best) and terminally, hypocritically dishonest. What Abe (the excellent Jordan Gelber, in what should be a career-making performance) and Miranda (the movingly and humorously dazed, vulnerable, and resigned Selma Blair) -- the not just unlikely but absolutely unfeasible "couple" whose unhappy story Dark Horse tells -- both suffer from, much more than their individual awful luck, stunted-adolescent lack of perspective, and self-pitying neuroses, is the false hope that is the cultural/social air they breathe, exponentially exacerbating life's infamous unfairness and leaving them (especially Abe) lost in impossible fantasy, chronically dissatisfied, and paralyzed when faced with an actual, unforgiving reality that hunts them down just as easily in the upper-middle-class-suburban childhood bedrooms to which they've retreated as it would anywhere else. Solondz's distinctive, sincerely deadpan style -- with its ruthlessly incisive, can't-look-away observational integrity in the writing and performances and its subtly meticulous visual stylings -- takes it all in, achieving a kind of equanimity through which we fully understand that the peppy, positive-thinking pop songs Abe listens to nonstop are super-catchy-addictive; that his life undeniably is unfair; and that his dangerous, ultimately self-sabotaging refusal/inability to grow up is completely explicable and not entirely his fault -- all this at the same time that the toxicity of the tempting lie-existence those songs hold out, along with all of Abe's convincing excuses and taken-for-granted privilege, cannot possibly be leading him to anything but disappointment and failure. It's a true trap, a conundrum that in one way or another holds everyone in Solondz's universe within its firm clutches and whose contours Solondz limns, contrary to popular opinion, with genuine care and all due gravity and respect.
Solondz's critics seem to feel he suffers from a superiority complex, that he exempts himself and his presumably self-congratulatory audience from the cruelty, hypocrisy, and impotence his characters suffer from and inflict upon each other, but that's hardly the case; if anything, the good, more-enlightened, better-cultured liberals that are the stereotypical art-house patron (and filmmaker) come under harsher scrutiny than anyone. (Solondz has said, "My movies aren't for everyone, especially people who like them," and the very literate, cultured characters played by Lara Flynn Boyle in Happiness, Paul Giamatti in Storytelling, and Ally Sheedy in Life During Wartime offer more than ample proof.) Instead, I think the rejections of Solondz that proliferated with every film since Welcome to the Dollhouse -- the false accusations of cheap misanthropy, the assumption of a low, nasty meanness on the filmmaker's part -- come from a deeper place, a more profound discomfort that only proves Solondz is doing his job: In his utterly uncompromising view, we're all of us accused and implicated in each other's despair and dissatisfactions, and there really is no escape, no exit, no exemption from the human condition (fallen, natch -- it's always worth remembering that the subsequently atheistic Solondz's onetime career choice was rabbi), not even for deep thinkers, intellectuals, sophisticated film critics/audiences, or himself. He places all of us -- rich, poor, young, old, urban, suburban, rural, "successful" or not, liberal or conservative -- on the same sinking boat, and his endlessly abrasive, invigoratingly essential question, which has him as stumped and disturbed as we and is posed more poignantly but no more facilely by Dark Horse than his other films, is simply, plaintively how we'll ever keep it from going under. Highly Recommended.