Two badly abused teenagers make friends, and help each other look past the traumas that brought them there. One of them is unable to see, and the other may well be dead.
I started watching The Dark with great expectations: I’d heard it had been received well at film festivals elsewhere in the world; the main character was a girl zombie; much of it had been inspired by Let the Right One In. And now the day has come for its UK premiere: would it live up to Lindqvist’s example?
Having finished watching it, I’m a little disappointed to say The Dark leaves me with very mixed feelings: turns out it’s a very mixed film. Some elements are beautifully done, some are a muddle; some are impressive, others are not well thought through.
Here’s the scenario.
Mina (Nadia Alexander) is a young woman hiding out in the woods, long after she has been apparently killed, and still showing brutal signs of her assault. She attacks and feeds on anyone who comes too close; she is not prepared to live like or with other people. Alex (Toby Nichols) is a young man held and broken by a kidnapper, Josef (Karl Markovics). When Mina attacks and kills Josef, Alex does not know how to accept this shift in his world. Alex’s eyes are so badly damaged that he cannot see Mina’s condition, but he accepts her protection and steadily they become friends.
These two young people are remarkable actors. I had seen Nadia Alexander before in The Sinner (series one), and she gives just the same blend of petulance and emotional insight as she did then. I will certainly look out for more of Toby Nichols; some may have seen him in Iron Fist, and he is gradually moving from TV to more film roles. He is extremely believable in his portrayal of a young man bound to his kidnapper by rules (reminding me in some ways of Room).
The effects of the scars Mina and Alex carry appear very authentic: you can believe they have all been present a long time, and healing – or at least ageing – to various degrees in that time. The film is really about their emotional scars, though: trauma is a dark, dark wood that people can find their way out of only when ready.
This is where some of the muddle comes in, though: as I see it, Mina’s scars and apparent zombie condition is a metaphorical presentation of the depth of the trauma she went through; Alex’s, on the other hand, are more literal. The writer/director Justin P. Lange has described The Dark as a fairytale, but I think that would really have worked best if both kids’ experiences were presented in at least equivalent ways.
The other muddle is about timescale. There is no indication of how long Alex was in Josef’s clutches: it was long enough for him to have deep, well-healed scars on his face (and well embedded rules), but the police appear to have fresh clues to follow. Mina has been hunting in the woods long enough that she is the stuff of local legend; but there are other indications that she has only been missing for weeks.
The Dark is a serious film, with a sombre consideration of abuse. The friendship, yes, is reminiscent of the one in Let the Right One In, but the melancholy tone is straight from the Schwarzenegger film Maggie. The careful, studied camera work reinforces the tone of the story beautifully; no surprise, considering the co-director Klemens Hufnagl looked after the cinematography too. They keep it serious by keeping music to an absolute minimum.
It can be very difficult for people with trauma in their background to connect with others, especially if they are still feeling its effect. A friend with similar angst to work through can be an excellent light to guide one’s way out of the dark. But personally, although The Dark is a beautifully made film, I do think the message would have been more effectively delivered without Mina being undead, metaphor or not.
Alix has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. They cover a wide variety, including genre festivals, and especially appreciates wit and representation on screen.