Dark Horse (2011, Todd Solondz)
Not sure what it says about me that I felt a deep kinship with Todd Solondz even before his recent streak of humane and gently somber films, but somewhat in my defense, it’s worth mentioning that the major sea change in Life During Wartime and Dark Horse has not been a newfound empathy for their characters. Solondz has always shown deep respect for and little judgment toward the often shrill but seldom unrealistic occupants of his films. Rather, what strikes you most about these two movies is their inescapable sadness. Life During Wartime was already a brilliant but brutal cry of despair, boasting Solondz’s most beautifully written script thus far and a new penchant for dramatic surrealism: dream sequences rendered in reality, a tenuous relationship with actual times and places falling away in favor of an expressionistic view of the denizens’ inner lives. Dark Horse moves farther in both of these directions — it’s even more of a sobering and calmly depressive work than its predecessor, and because much of it occurs in the mind of an imaginative adult child and (later) coma victim, it’s all the more a strange missive from a mysterious darkness.
Perversely, it’s also his warmest and most deeply compassionate film to date — but this comes at a price, and it’s hardly the sunny-and-bright ribald comedy suggested by the laughably misleading trailer, which implies it to be precisely the sort of narrative it’s firmly rejecting. The reading of Dark Horse as a direct contradiction to and antidote for the films of Judd Apatow has been a popular one, supported to a degree by the director himself, but it’s so much more sophisticated and passionate a film than any of Apatow’s that it seems unfair to make the comparison. Their genres are not similar, their goals are not similar; Apatow’s macho bro-comedies are a jumping off point for Solondz — he zeroes in not on the nature of the modern comedies themselves but upon the personality types they place front and center as normal embodiments of the modern male. They’re not, of course. They’re cartoons. So here, Solondz describes with considerable grace and not a hint of superiority the actual life and manner of a man living on such outskirts of adult existence: still living with his parents, collecting toys, smart but stunted, tentative but sort of obnoxious and entitled. Think Roger in Greenberg, but more lost yet.
Yet Solondz doesn’t do this the easy way, by making Jordan Gelber’s fuckup Abe adorably inept or a mere subject of mockery.What makes this such a refreshing contradiction to films like Knocked Up is that it removes the “cuddliness” factor of a character like this while also sharpening the focus on his flaws and humanity, which perversely renders him more familiar and endearing. He’s an angry man, ranting and raving more than once with a passion that’s both nearly frightening and has the uncomfortable note of aching near-reality and rawness you’ll remember from the post-murder scene in Palindromes, the “jerk off instead” conversation in Happiness, and more than anything the dorm room confrontation between father and son in Life During Wartime. In this film, Abe — perpetually embittered by the tough love of his still-enabling father (Christopher Walken, nailing his best-ever role aside from Annie Hall and Catch Me If You Can) — is thrown again into the arms of his overly sentimental and protective mom (Mia Farrow, who it’s wonderful to see again), and tearfully articulates his rage. “We’re all terrible people…. Even an animal knows the hard primal truth: it is all about what you want and if there’s any kindness or generosity it only comes after being well-fed.” And he breaks down, again into her embrace, and the desperation is physical. It’s almost inevitable that the film’s story ultimately justifies the bleakness of Abe’s worldview — or nearly does.
The metaphysically fantastic part of the film is manifested by dream sequences that seem initially to invade the real world, a traditional Solondz device, but as the film goes on, the man who early on states “I know my problems better than anyone and there’s no solution” begins to lose his grip, hastened by a medical downturn. His visions are frequently intruded upon by an apparition of his dad’s kindly secretary, Marie (truly wonderfully brought to life in various incarnations by Donna Murphy), first as the do-gooder variation on her real self who’s so often tasked with looking out for Abe in the mild work-related fiascos he falls into in his lowly job at his dad’s office. But later, Marie becomes guardian angel, steely-eyed vixen, compassionate savior as the world opens and envelops and destroys Abe, first in his dream state and then in reality. This is all punctuated in downright Lynchian fashion by his periodic visits to the service desk at a nearby Toys R Us, besieged first by scratches on one of the action figures in his broad collection, then by simple human need.
Through all this, the world is through Abe’s eyes, lending it a sense of unreality even in his waking moments. In the very first scene, a wedding populated by dancing idiots (Solondz completely setting us up with his lead character’s own distorted view of his surroundings) leads him stumbling into Selma Blair’s conspicuously sad-eyed Miranda (a revision of her character Vi from Storytelling) with his awkward-to-witness total absence of filtering and self-protection. That’s another fascinating revision of the stunted-male movie stereotype: Abe is not a shy man. Within days of meeting Miranda and with no signal of real interest on her part, he’s asked her to marry him and taken her baffled glare in response in gleeful stride. He doesn’t seem to fear humiliation — but he takes it badly.
For some of us, this makes him perversely a bit admirable; against every odd and with the obviously clear knowledge that his physical appearance, lifestyle and large number of toys make him a difficult sell to a potential mate. He’s not an unlovable man, and even if he is it’s the conditions of the world laid upon him that owe some blame for making him such, but his complications ring dreadfully clear and true, and he seems incapable of either facing up to them or working to improve them. Instead, he grieves in a manner that will be familiar to a lot of us: he sulks, or he goes to the movies and murmurs on his own. When Miranda later reaches out to him as a deeply damaged human herself, and mumbles to him “I want to want you,” we recognize the limitless loneliness that can kill the spirit in them both. As the consequences of their tentative relationship and Abe’s fraying home life take their toll on them, the film grows all the more sobering and devastating until it’s nearly too much to bear. Sure, it’s funny, but if you’ve ever labeled a Solondz film a “comedy” you should know better by now.
What Solondz actually does is hunt for the truth in the scenes he documents, even when what he’s really doing is crawling inside a person’s head, which he’s never done so completely as now. In Dark Horse, the blurred effect on the Toys R Us sign, the made-up Seinfeld dialogue playing on the TV screen his parents watch somberly, the silly pop music playing from every speaker and telephone, and the inane unscramble-the-word title cards playing at the multiplex (in a rare moment of actual mockery from Solondz, and one that will prove cathartic to anyone who’s been to the movies in the last decade) are all just components of the limited and singular manner in which Abe sees the world, and the willingness of Solondz to collapse his broader sensitivity into such a dedicated vision as to allow a distinctly difficult character to become an audience vessel suggests that he’s more than a skilled and intelligent director but an actual master, and I don’t use the term lightly. Is there a more consistent director working in America now? I don’t believe there is — with six strong and increasingly idiosyncratic triumphs in a row now, two of which (Happiness and Palindromes) I’m convinced are masterpieces, created with an ever-heightened number of budgetary and logistical limitations (that Toys R Us sign was blurred because few American companies will have anything to do with Solondz in light of his reputation).
And yet, this film went almost entirely unseen. It continued the pattern of each Solondz film making less money than the last. Personally, I’d say it’s more accessible than Life During Wartime, which netted a better distributor (IFC), but it does coalesce to similar sense of grief, the suicide dialogue at the older film’s finale matched by the death and darkness that leave us here. But perhaps an element of the problem with Dark Horse and the difficulty with selling it broadly is that it shows and tells us things a large audience doesn’t necessarily wish to deal with in an escapist night at the movies. I can’t blame people for having a better time at Knocked Up; I’m aware that my taste in newer films frequently reads like a list of films that seem most determined to annoy the largest possible swath of humanity (Margot at the Wedding, Antichrist, Somewhere, to start). But with all that said, an extraordinary number of people would feel something from this movie if they sat down and watched it, something not wholly pleasant but something they wouldn’t soon forget and that would leave them emotionally impacted. That’s why we need a better market than the broken, dying one for arthouse films in this country, but I digress. There’s no reason Dark Horse can’t reach beyond the Solondz cult; it belongs in a grouping with Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl, the two softly woeful Mike White-Miguel Arteta collaborations of the early 2000s; Noah Baumbach’s far more optimistic Greenberg; and even Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman’s vastly inferior gender-reversal of a rather similar story, Young Adult. That film, which embodies so much less sophistication and empathy than this one, got Oscar buzz. Where was this?
My point is that this beautifully executed, monumentally well-cast (perfectly cast, I would argue), and frankly brilliant film deserves your attention when you feel you’re up for it. To summarize: it’s a deeply compassionate work about our need to reach out to other people and to be reached out for, or the absence of one or both of those in our lives. Its emotional arc is defined by Donna Murphy in one of the most stunning closing shots in recent cinema. In contrast to what every two-bit armchair movie “blogger” will tell you, Solondz is getting better and better and should be able to make movies constantly. The future of his career does not deserve to be in doubt after every single film he makes, and it makes me furious that it is. Do this much for me: Watch the latest Oscar baity offerings of David O. Russell and Kathryn Bigelow, neither of them bad films, and then see Solondz’s last two efforts and tell me who knows more about American life, about human emotion, about pain. There’s no fucking contest, and it’s time he got some credit for it.