Written and Directed By: Todd Solondz
Starring: Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair, Mia Farrow, Christopher Walken, Justin Bartha, Donna Murphy, and Aasif Mandvi
Director of Photography: Andrij Parekh, Editor: Kevin Messman, Production Designer: Alex DiGerlando, Art Direction: Dawn Masi
“I don’t dance,” explains Abe to Miranda in the opening sequence of Todd Solodnz’s Dark Horse. The two sit silently and awkwardly during a wedding, as every other person dances (in synchronization!) to a catchy pop song. Abe seems like, for lack of a better term, a honest guy—he might be overweight and totally awkward, but maybe his heart’s in the right place. Miranda seems uninterested to say the least; her eyes shout, “get away from me.” So how can these two imperfect souls be right for each other?
Well, it helps if they are both essentially psychopaths underneath. Solondz’s films are always about how the seemingly innocent world of today hides a world of destructive mental states. His most acclaimed film, Happiness, follows the cheerful suburban life of people who dream of intense sexual perversity (its spiritual sequel, Life During Wartime, went sadly unnoticed in 2009, though it’s just as great).
If there’s anything surprising about Dark Horse, it’s how tame the film is compared to the dark, dark places Soldonz has driven us in the past. Our protagonist, Abe, is certainly wrong in his head, but his problems are more awkward than frightening. Played by Jordan Gebler, Abe is a guy with confidence boding on the outside, his egotistical nature hiding the fact that he still lives with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) and works for his dad’s company (though he assures someone that he was the most qualified candidate). Abe becomes unnaturally attracted to Miranda (Selma Blair, who now strikes me as Aubrey Plaza's future) after swiping her number at the wedding despite her complete lack of interest. He casually drives the three hours to her house in his oversized yellow hummer (a metaphor if there ever was one) and then after spending a couple hours with her, decides to propose.
Like Solodnz’s great works, Dark Horse never winks once at the camera, and the director crafts the film as if he was making a high school guy-meets-girl film (the catchy pop songs add to the stinging irony). His characters wear their metaphors—Abe’s room is filled with neatly organized action figures—and the dialogue crackles with absurd jokes, though no one laughs. But the control is astounding, because Soldonz can make us laugh at things that should turn us to tears—who else could make an STD like Hepatitis B into a broad joke?
Solodnz’s films are ultimately about our inner demons, so it’s somewhat disappointing as Dark Horse enters its final act by manifesting those demons. As Abe becomes more disillusioned, visions his family and friends appear. Some of these are fun and insightful—Donna Murphy’s double-sided performance as faithful secretary-cum-cougar is delightfully absurd—but Dark Horse becomes more problematic as these characters decide to directly explain Abe’s problems to him, and thus to us. Solodnz’s characters love to speak in direct terms (Dylan Baker’s speech to his son in Happiness will always be an all time classic), but there’s something how these demons continually list these issues. It feels a bit sloppy for a director who often appears to have complete control.
Dark Horse ends in a bizarre series of sequences, its unclear why Solodnz feels like putting Abe through what feels like unnecessary torture. Abe is a kid who hasn’t grown up, but his punishment seems justified by, well what, really? The whole ending, save for the perfect final shot (in which the director recognizes the fantasies we all sadly share), feels staid and rushed, as if where the real pain and melancholy Abe could have faced would be too difficult to show off. It’s a shame, because like the film’s title suggests, this had a chance to be Solondz’s secret masterpiece, but it sputters near the end.