Friday, July 6, 2012

Dark Horse Movie Review

In the first scene of Dark Horse, the camera opens on a dancing bride and groom surrounded by their wedding guests, also enjoying the festivities. Will this be a film about the beginning of a romantic marriage? No! This is a Todd Solondz film so the camera soon settles upon the two people at the wedding who aren’t dancing. They also happen to be mid-30s depressives, each one a terrible case of arrested development and on the brink of complete breakdowns.

Abe (Jordan Gelber) puts on a happy-go-lucky exterior that he uses to cover up his terrible insecurity and pent up rage that is just waiting to be set loose. He still lives in his parents’ house in a bedroom festooned with old action figures. He also works in his father’s (a low-key Christopher Walken) real estate business where he is rather shiftless and lucky to still have a job. His mother (Mia Farrow) is dowdy and quiet, offering nothing but meaningless platitudes to a son in deep need of therapy. The woman he meets at the wedding is Miranda (Selma Blair). She also lives with her parents in something like a comatose existence apparently since the end a relationship with Mahmoud, whom she spends a little too much time thinking about and talking to.

Abe is a character that is so clueless about social relationships that it comes as little surprise when he asks Miranda to marry him on their first date, which wasn’t even really a date because she only half consented and then forgot about it anyway. She is so lost in her own depression that she thinks the only way to have a life is to say yes and worry about attraction coming later. In that respect, Solondz has created a modern day story of betrothal. Instead of the characters being teenagers or in their early twenties and fearing it may be too late for marriage, in the modern world that feeling strikes those in their mid-30s.

Todd Solondz movies have a nasty habit of getting under your skin because he uses real settings and outfits the scenes with things we recognize from our own lives. His worlds never feel like a creation. They are lived in and real. When Abe sits in his office next to his dad’s, the dull hum of computers on the soundtrack and the occasional ringing telephone or whirring copy machine makes it feel like a place where real people work. He takes that verisimilitude and then twists and contorts the stories for his characters in such a way that it’s like a terrible train wreck you can’t look away from. Using scathing satire he gets to the dark underbelly of human behavior and if you’ve ever seen one of his films, then you know it’s not headed for a happy place. However, this might be his only film that has no sexual predation of any kind. Not that it needs it. He manages to sink low enough in suburban hell without it.

If you watch a Todd Solondz movie and you’re not laughing most of the way through, even as tragedy strikes, then his movies were not made for you. The sheer absurdity of the story alone was enough to nearly have me in stitches. And it’s really down to the way Solondz shapes his screenplays that we don’t find it all that odd when characters have completely abnormal reactions to utterly bizarre statements. There’s also a whole lot that plays out inside Abe’s mind, through dreams both actual and of the daytime variety. These include sexual fantasies in which Marie, the secretary from the office played by Donna Murphy, feeds him the advice he desperately craves, and familial conversations that help him sort out his misplaced anger and aggression toward his more successful brother, Richard (Justin Bartha).

I’m not sure what Solondz means to say by making film after film about sad suburban people. All I know is Dark Horse is one of his best efforts to date. I’d venture a guess also that if you find yourself amused by these characters and these situations, if you think it’s hysterical that an overweight, unattractive man in his mid-30s with no future prospects considers inheriting his parents’ house when they move to Floriday the ultimate future for himself, then that probably says more about your own attitudes toward life in the American suburbs than it does about Solondz’s choice of subject matter.

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