Andrew Moraitis checks out Todd Solondz latest at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
Dark Horse’s Abe (Jordan Gelber) is no lovable loser. Still living at home in his thirties, he covets the childish security of self-victimhood, blaming his weary father (Christopher
Walken), fawning mother (Mia Farrow) and successful brother (Justin Bartha) for his inadequacies. Most tragic characters incorporate a sense of compassion or ambition, but Abe is a dark, possibly hopeless character lacking any admirable qualities, and no-one – not even a fiancé (Selma Blair) – can help him.
Heavy stuff and this might have been a problem if Dark Horse were made by anyone else but Todd Solondz. The Happiness filmmaker, however, has a gift for empathising with repulsive characters: you might not like Dylan Baker’s suburban paedophile in the earlier film, but you understand him. Similarly, Dark Horse’s Abe is invested with unexpected pathos: underneath his misguided bluster and juvenile impatience, he is a lonely child who cannot face the demands of an adult world. Gelber’s brave and unrelenting performance melds the character’s absurdity with emotional dimension, especially in Dark Horse’s closing scenes.
At first, the casting of a withering Walken and a fey Farrow seems strange, given their obvious physical disparity to their on-screen son, but the later presence of Bartha makes Solondz’ choice clear: Abe is a stranger even in his own family. Similarly, Donna Murphy’s casting (as a demure assistant) is odd until later fantasy sequences reveal her as the surrogate mother/lover-hybrid that Abe unconsciously covets. Their performances are strong (especially Murphy’s), elegantly supporting the film’s complex tonal shifts and absurd comedy with ease.
Not quite as stylised or as broadly satirical as his earlier films, Solondz’ Dark Horse is an effective continuation of the melancholic texture of Life During Wartime.