Delicately new and surprisingly tender, Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse is both a break from the past and a ghostly visitation of the indie auteur’s oeuvre.
Inside I Feel Like Dancing by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Todd Solondz has changed. Instead of an opening scene of awkward conversation, we’re treated to a feast of overly energetic dancers at a wedding reception. And then an awkward conversation, as Abe tries to chat up a hesitantly resistant Miranda. As well as an uncustomary tenderness, there’s also an unprecedented Jewishness to Dark Horse, Jordan Gelber taking over from Philip Seymour Hoffman as the archetypal male loser of Happiness, as if Hoffman’s Irish looks just weren’t Jewish enough. The Jewish director is lent support by a largely Jewish cast, and there’s a sprinkling of Judaica around the family home, with Star of David flags and posters yearning for Israel. Above all though, Dark Horse is the story of thirty-somethings suspended in adolescence, the anachronism of Abe responding to his mother Phyllis’ inquiries into how the day went with nothing more than a sullenly slammed bedroom door, and Miranda crying into her pillow with all the shredded idealism of a sulky teenager.
The post-teenagers both have bedrooms in their elderly parents’ homes, filled with comforting trinkets from their childhood. In Abe’s case a back catalogue of Thundercats action figures, Gremlins and Oddjob’s bowler hat. It’s tempting to say that Abe has remained a child, but in truth he’s not really anyone at all – forced between two personas that don’t fit – one the spoilt, cantankerous child, the other a would-be suave lothario. Neither of these adopted personalities sit well, and it’s with a desperate schadenfreude that we anxiously await the chastening of his spirit and for the real Abe to emerge.
Solondz regulars might have an inkling his soul-reforming demise will only come in the shape of a coma, paralysis and acute hepatitis. And the death of the film’s protagonist leaves a familiarly bitter taste lingering well beyond the closing credits. The family closes in around Abe’s factually inaccurate gravestone – Richard and Miranda arm-in-arm at his funeral with a baby, the family unit thriving on a new harmony and stability without their colourful peace-wrecker. Like the diamanté font of the opening titles, Abe is the plasticky bling adrift in the family’s middle-class, pastel elegance. He’s petulant and sulky, and even his hope of happiness with Miranda rests on slippery foundations; her desire to marry him bolstered on retorts like “I want to want you. That’s enough for me.” Her tattered ambitions of a literary career as well as her modish coiffe and her quips on post-Marxist clichés propel her into a different league. And while we may dare to hope Miranda is the path to Abe’s happiness and salvation, the opening exchange in which he presses for a phone number while Miranda hesitates and obfuscates before reluctantly acquiescing casts a desperate pessimism over the couple’s romance. And her valedictory avowal to Abe, just out of a two-week coma, “We hardly know each other, we have nothing in common, I’m not attracted to you, but I still care” seems more like a rejection than an affirmation of love.
Rather than the lacerating humour of his previous films, Dark Horse is a bittersweet comedy of failures. His characters may fit, like Palindromes, as carbon copies – Selma Blair’s Miranda is a continuation of Storytelling’s Vi, but the camera’s critical distance has softened. Andrij Parekh’s cinematography, which illuminated Blue Valentine so beautifully, creates the same Solondzian world as Edward Lachman in Life During Wartime or Maryse Alberti in Happiness. But it’s Solondz’s vision of a fantasy world indistinguishable from reality which really marks Dark Horse’s difference.
Beginning as an externalisation of Abe’s doubts, secretary Marie appears in Abe’s Hummer with his father’s paperwork and a warning from his subconscious that Miranda’s too good for him. She’s also the unlikely escape route from a pugilistic encounter with Miranda’s ex, pulling up in her red convertible and luring him back to her cougar’s lair – all minimalist lines and designer furniture. She’s the unrecognised true love in Abe’s life, somehow invading his consciousness. And just before he flatlines with a cinematic fade to white, it’s Marie he imagines kissing. In a strange fantasy convergence after Abe dies, Marie has her own onscreen fantasy, dancing with Abe in her tired home, surrounded by posters of Broadway musicals, stuffed bears and worn linoleum. The fantasy world though isn’t always so easily distinguished, and a seamless veneer of inscrutability colours events. As Abe heads to an ‘unnamed’ toy megastore for a second time to return a damaged figurine, he’s finally able to speak to the manager – Miranda’s ex Mahmood, now in a neckbrace and recounting things about Abe’s family he can’t possibly know. Everything is both real and unreal – sales assistant Jiminy’s irrepressible cheerfulness perhaps just as fantastic as Miranda’s monotone mumblecore.
Culminating with Abe’s after-death visitation to the family home, Dark Horse is like walking through a bluescreen of Dr Sonnenschein therapy-inspired visions. His ruminations on the height markings notched into the bedroom doorpost and on being “Dad’s Dark Horse” encapsulate the film’s themes of sibling rivalry, a spoiled father-son relationship and Abe’s failure to achieve his potential. His earthly desire to prove himself to the world as a dark horse, if not a front runner favourite, echoes Dawn’s experience in Welcome To The Dollhouse – the not-so-meek eager, but unable, to inherit the earth. There are some excellent comic asides, such as the reliance on YouTube videos for information on hepatitis B or the cheesy multiplex pre-screening games, but for all its breakaway novelties, Dark Horse inhabits the same world as the rest of Solondz’s oeuvre, curdled by a dark nihilism. Dark Horse isn’t exactly furlongs ahead of the rest, but it’s certainly worth a lay bet.
Dark Horse is released in the UK on 29th June 2012