[Review] – Dark Horse

23 Jun

Title: Dark Horse
Year: 2012
Director: Todd Solondz
Writer: Todd Solondz
Starring: Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair, Christopher Walken, Mia Farrow, Justin Bartha
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Runtime: 84 min
IMDb Rating: 6.6
Rotten Tomatoes: 73%
Metacritic: 66

It was only a few years ago, in 2009, when I was introduced to the work of Todd Solondz. I remember reading that he had a film called Life During Wartime premiering at that year’s Venice International Film Festival, which was a semi-sequel of sorts to another film of his, 1998’s Happiness. So I thought I should check out his stuff, and I started at the beginning, with 1995’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, which blew me away, and then the aforementioned Happiness, which I found to be even better. Those two films still stand to this day as two of the best films of the nineties, in my opinion.

The three efforts he’s given us in the new millennium, however, just haven’t really reached that level of greatness. 2001’s Storytelling did absolutely nothing for me, though it was certainly okay, and 2004’s Palindromes I thought wasn’t even a film I would actually recommend, and the aforementioned Life During Wartime, though good, was definitely no Happiness even if it did focus on the same characters as grown-ups. I still admired his vision as a director, though, his exploration of the darker side of the people that live in middle-class America, and I would still be very curious to see what he did next.

What he did next turned out to be Dark Horse, which screened at both last year’s Venice International Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. The film is as idiosyncratic as you could expect coming from Mr. Solondz, cynical in its incisiveness, and though nowhere near as good as his first two films, this is probably the best one he’s done since, so definitely a step in the right direction for Mr. Solondz if you ask me. It’s a film that fits exquisitely in his style exploration of life, and the dark comedy on display is done brilliantly. In a way, though, this is a departure of sorts: it’s probably the most upbeat and actually hopeful film of his.

Don’t ge me wrong, however. It’s not as though Mr. Solondz is making cheery movies, Dark Horse actually has a protagonist that the director makes damn sure you don’t particularly like all that much, and that it will take something for you to really sympathize with you. And yet with his unflinchingly honest portrayal of all the events, by the time Dark Horse is done with you, while you probably still won’t like him all that much, you may just get to understand him.

That protagonist is Abe, played by Jordan Gelber. He’s a guy in his mid-thirties who’s in total arrested development, living in his parent’s house where he keeps his toy collection. His dad, played by Christopher Walken, supports him and gives him a job at his company, though really he just sits in front of the computer and an assistant does most of his work for him, and he’s always stupidly going on about how his parents always preferred his young brother, played by Justin Bartha, over him. He’s one of those Todd Solondz creations that maybe you’d pity, but instead you just don’t like much, because he’s so obnoxious and whiny and behaves like a little brat. This is a director that really knows how to poke into the darkest corners of suburbia.

Mr. Solondz however, gets Abe a romantic partner. That’s right, you have a guy that behaves like an infant, that’s totally privileged and that drives a bloody yellow Hummer, a guy you can so easily dislike, and from the opening scene you know he’s going to have a romantic interest. She’s played by Selma Blair, who I really like, and whom he meets at the wedding the films opens in. It’s not as though he flirts with her at the wedding, it’s just that he’s pathetically sitting alone while the shindig is in full swing and so is she, a loner like him. He then approaches her in the most uncomfortable-to-watch passive-agressive of ways, and even though she’s at first reluctant (not that he notices), she eventually goes for it. Ms. Blair is, by the way, pitch perfect here in her awkward deadpan.

Then Mr. Solondz does something that I really didn’t expect, and that had an effect in this whole experience that I actually really loved. He goes away from the realism a bit, and starts giving us fantasy dreamlike sequences being imagined by Abe. I think that allowed us to breathe a little bit more during this film, in a way. And it also made it much more fascinating to watch the journey Abe goes through. Because even if we do feel he’s pathetic, and maybe pity him a bit, and generally dislike him in a way that makes us really think that he fully deserves all that’s coming to him, it also makes us understand him better, and in a way these fantasy scenarios make way for the tiniest bit of light to come in and some hope to exist, which is a very rare occurrence in a Todd Solondz movie.

This isn’t a great film like Happiness or Welcome to the Dollhouse were, but I was really glad to catch up with it and to welcome Todd Solondz back. Few directors can give us characters that are so unlikable and yet make them so fully engaging that we watch a whole movie about them. Yet here, even though he’s painting in tones that are as dark as always, he allows some kind of hope, which I found really worked, especially in this kind of more surreal structure that surrounds the film. This is a director that has a lot to say and that knows how to say it, and like I said, Dark Horse is a step in the right director for him right now, and I can’t wait to see what’s next up his sleeve.

Grade: B+

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