Sunday, July 8, 2012

Dark Horse [2011]

MPAA (Unrated, would be PG-13 / R)  Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert's review -
Village Voice review -

Dark Horse (written and directed by Todd Solondz [IMDb]) is an darker "indie" take on what may be becoming a world-wide (or Western world phenomenon) of the 30+ year old "man-child" unwilling/unable to "grow-up."  Recent Hollywood films, mostly comedies, that have played with this theme include Knocked Up [2007], Step Brothers [2008] and most recently Ted [2012].  But the same phenomenon also appears in European films including two films that I've recently reviewed here: the Italian comedy Immaturi [2010] about a group of Italian 30-somethings being called back to high school to retake their graduation exit exams, and the half-funny/half-serious Czech/Slovak documentary The Matchmaking Mayor (Nezvatbov) [2011] about a mayor of a small Slovakian town trying to get the town's unmarried/still living at home 30-and even 40-somethings to finally "find someone and just get married." Solondz, independent film-maker that he is, produces a film here that while still often funny, is certainly more cutting/honest than standard Hollywood fare.

Set in "suburban New Jersey," the story's about Abe (played by Jordan Gelber) a 35-year old "older son" still living at home and with a job at his father's small but reasonably successful real estate development firm.  It's obvious that Abe hates his job.  It's equally obvious that he's not particularly good at it.  But both he and his father (played by Christopher Walken) put-up with the arrangement because ... what else, honestly, would/could Abe probably do?

Abe drives a gigantic canary-yellow "H2" Hummer that obviously had to have been bought by his parents' money rather than his own, blasting comically-optimistic and more-or-less obviously no longer age-appropriate Taylor Swift style songs on the stereo while he's behind the wheel, and ... ends up spending most of his evenings playing Backgammon with his still loving mom (played by Mia Farrow).  There's a younger brother Richard (played by Justin Bartha), who as a successful medical doctor living out in California, has lapped Abe so often in the "sibling rivalry of life" that they haven't talked to each other in years.

There are two women in the story that are presented as people who could help Abe out of his years/decades long slide: Miranda (played by Selma Blair) who is single 30-something (his age) who he meets at a wedding but is more or less obviously not particularly interested in him and carries her own baggage, and a secretary Marie (played by Donna Murphy) who seems to be closer to Abe's parents' age but appears to feel sorry for him.

Marie's character becomes interesting for another reason: While she does actually help Abe in the "real life" of the story by completing an assignment given to him by his father that Abe appears utterly unwilling/unable to do, she also tends to appear to Abe in his thoughts and dreams to give him advice.

Marie's role in Abe's psyche becomes more and more interesting as the film progresses because it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish what in the story is "real" and what is "in Abe's mind."  Marie's character swims between both worlds quite freely from very early-on in the story.  The others begin to appear more frequently in sequences that one guesses are playing-out in Abe's mind as the film progresses.

As such, the movie becomes fascinating from a psychological Object Relations Theory sort of a way, the fundamental idea behind the theory being that we don't necessarily relate to the world as it is (or as we are) but according to our projections of it and of ourselves.  In a sense, we can not help but do this since we can only know what we can see/experience.  However, it is then imperative that we interact with the outside world to keep us grounded in at least a reasonably close approximation of reality.  If we don't interact much with the outside world (and for any number of reasons such as introversion, depression or denial) we will come to fill the empty space in our minds with our projections.

Thus it would seem that Abe's life has been one of repeated failure.  Yet, to keep going he has to deny that (And yes, THIS IS BOTH UNDERSTANDABLE AND HORRIBLY SAD).  As such, he drives around in a big yellow Hummer listening to happy Taylor Swift style-music, apparently unconcerned that he's obviously driving around in a "big yellow car" that, at 35, his parents had bought him.  So he's denying his own reality.  As a result, we find him hitting on Miranda who he also doesn't see for who she is and on multiple levels: she's both "way too good for him" and "has her own baggage."  And every so often "Marie" the secretary comes into his head to _try_ to tell him the truth.

As the film progresses the boundary between "outside reality" and "what's in Abe's mind' becomes more and more blurred, leading one both to really "understand" Abe (or the film-maker's understanding of his problem) and to feel sorry for him.

How does it all turn out?  I'm not going to say but it certainly makes for an interesting discussion piece, and the whole story is certainly "more real" if darker/sadder than films like "Knocked Up" or "Ted."

Final note to parents.  The film is remarkably clean, no sex, nudity or violence.  However, the subject matter is such that I doubt that a teenager could really understand this film.  So don't bore them with it.  This is really for the young adult and above crowd to see / talk about ... 


Taken in the light above, this film would be interesting to compare with Franz Kafka's famous story "Metamorphosis" about a young man who was dutifully taking care of his parents and younger sister until one morning he "turned into a cockroach."  How can we relate to someone if we've reduced him/her in our minds to being "a cockroach?"

Similarly, it turns out that the Gospel reading for this Sunday (14th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle B) was of Jesus coming to preach in his home town of Nazareth and being largely rejected by the townspeople who remembered him as he used to be: a carpenter, the son of Mary, with his "brothers and sisters" (relatives) living there [Mk 6:1-6].  How good are we in accepting that people can change becoming "more" or different than they were (or seemed) before?  Or are we simply calcified in our perceptions of reality and of the people around us?

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  1. Hello Fr Dennis, we just saw "safety not guaranteed" did you see? I was thinking about seeing the "Dark Horse" when and if it comes to St. Louis. but anyway, have you seen this? I did not see it in your recent reviews.
    Peace T

    1. Hi Theresa, I saw "Safety Not Guaranteed" a couple of weeks ago and even took a couple of our young adults here at Annunciata to see it last week. Thought it was an excellent movie as well! (

  2. and to answer your questions above, we are able to accept that people can change through a deep path of reconciliation of both oneself and the other. I like your word calcified but it should not be the case if we are a faith person for me especially being Catholic that is not a possibility.

    1. Thanks for your answers! I think that it's easier to be calcified than we may think. But interestingly enough, Jesus by starting his public ministry around 30, was a "30 something" who did actually make a radical change in his life. Before, he was a carpenter, living presumably at home and working in his step-father's business.

      His baptism at the Jordan and then 40 days in the Desert _did_ change him ;-) and the village didn't seem to accept it, preferring to keep him pigeon holed in his past.

      And Nazareth certainly wouldn't be something unique to it. Any small town or neighborhood would probably be very similar, and the people wouldn't be doing this out of bad motives.

      The people of Nazareth probably _liked_ the Jesus who they previously knew ...