Dark Horse, Todd Solondz’s latest philosophical romp
Dark Horse, Todd Solondz’s
latest philosophical romp is both a step in a new direction and a throwback to
his glory days when he was renowned for his playfully (and painfully) harsh
comedies Happiness and Storytelling. Abe is a thirty-something man-child
whose belated attempts at growing up manifest as well-intentioned mistakes and
a naively fast-tracked romance.
Before Solondz reveals his trademark ‘awkward couple’ opening scene,
he boldly declares this film will be different from his previous work by
starting with a sarcastically over-the-top dance set-piece at a wedding. It’s here that Abe meets the
perpetually tranquilised Miranda (an on-form Selma Blair, effectively reprising her role as Vi from
Storytelling). Abe’s chat-up
line? “I don’t dance. It’s just not my thing.” Miranda’s response? “…Uh huh.” Cue fairy tale romance!
The central part of Abe
is a talent showcase for the formidable Jordan
Gelber, best known previously for his work on Boardwalk Empire.
Gelber successfully performs the unenviable task of making an unlikable
character relatable and is deadpan enough to convince that Abe is truly
oblivious to the achingly obvious errors that he makes. Christopher
Walken turns in an unusually quiet performance as Abe’s disappointed dad
who has long given up hope that his son might be a late bloomer.
For fans looking for a
dose of the cruel, puppy-strangling cynicism served with vitriolic panache that
Solondz has become known for, it might come as something of a letdown that Dark
Horse is a more mellow effort from the auteur. If the film was a person, it would still have acid for
blood, but it would be pumped by a warm heart. For example, after going on a misanthropic rant and letting
pus bleed out from his angry, wounded soul (“we’re all horrible people!”) Abe
is brought down to Earth by his well-adjusted mother reminding him that she
cares about him even if no one else does.
It’s a scene where Solondz perhaps admits that his negative worldview
might seem true on a generalised scale but not on an intimate one.
unversed in Solondz’s often shocking writing best stay away if hoping for
anything resembling a ‘feel good factor.’
Don’t be deceived by the marketing calling the film a comedy, a ploy so
often used to lure the unsuspecting to see films more likely to leave them in
tears than in stitches (Synecdoche, New
York is a prime example).
There is humour but it’s wrapped so tightly in tragedy that you’ll be
chuckling through clenched teeth.
There’s palpable awkwardness at every turn and, though some find that
kind of thing delicious, others find it nauseating. Solondz knows this of course and both reactions are probably
The director has put
together another memorable soundtrack, the highlight being the recurring theme
song that is Michael Kisur’s
excellent ‘Who You Wanna Be’, used to ironic effect. The film is infused with a more surreal edge than Solondz
has toyed with before, the narrative draining away as the plughole of Abe’s
subconscious is released, so that by the time the credits roll you’ll be
wondering what really happened and what didn’t.
Dark Horse is a
simultaneously tender and abrasive wake up call to those who have delayed
starting their adult lives for the sake of clinging to some comforting remnant
of childhood security. Solondz
latest ‘sad comedy’ provides plenty of pathos and is sure to divide audiences
but it wouldn’t be Solondz if it didn’t!