On A Dark Song, ritualized grief, and the diminishing returns of angry shouting
A Dark Song IFC Midnight
Director: Liam Gavin
Screenplay: Liam Gavin
Starring: Catherine Walker and Steve Oram
Not rated / 1 hour, 40 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
This is not, by any means, a perfect rule of thumb, yet I feel compelled to invoke it here: The more someone yells, the less he or she (usually he) has to say. That goes for coworkers and bosses, and for those annoying people at parties, and for sports pundits on daytime television. It might go for celebrity chefs, too, but I wouldn't stick around and listen long enough to find out. We'll let it slide for drill sergeants and preachers and football coaches - but even then, only some of them.
And it applies to movies, too. The more a movie resorts to yelling, the more it feels like it's trying to fill an otherwise empty void. Consider the Pacino standard. The guy's a yeller - he's always been a yeller - but when you see him delivering outburst after outburst, you're almost definitely watching a bad Pacino movie. Your The Recruits, your Righteous Kills. And on the flip side of that coin there's Pacino yelling for powerful, immediate effect - the abortion reveal in The Godfather Part II, the seminal "She's got a great ass!" scene from Heat. Pacino also played a football coach in a movie I consider to be terrible, and I realize that complicates my firmly established rules. Point being: I'm not universally anti-shouting; I just want the shouting to matter is all.
A Dark Song is a movie with a lot of shouting. Which is saying something, considering it features only two actors, takes place mostly in one location, and is presumably trying to build around its dangerous, otherworldly mood rather than the bickering of its performers. And yet the prevailing memory is one of constant yelling, as if writer/director Liam Gavin has only one solution to every conflict between his two characters. That Joseph Solomon (talented character actor and comedian Steve Oram) is an abusive prick, and is using his leverage over Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker) as unabashedly as he can, is a relevant part of their shared dynamic and of the tension that pervades between them over the course of the film. But it makes for exceptionally monotonous drama, and actively works against the slow atmospheric chill that keeps trying to settle in.
In fact, the movie has a habit of getting into monotonous patterns. We begin intriguingly enough, as Mr. Solomon (as he periodically insists on being called, whenever he feels the need to assert his authority) interrogates Sophie with a series of cryptic questions about her diet, her history, her habits. The reason this pseudo-interview is taking place is revealed slowly as the specifics slip into conversation. She is attempting to hire him for a job few are qualified for - leading an extremely long occult ritual meant to give her access to a guardian angel that will ... well, that will presumably do something that she wants done. That's one of his questions, too - but neither he nor we are sure she's being honest about her given reasons. At least in her initial answer. The ritual, we discover, will require the two to shack up in an isolated house away from all hints of civilization - for months. We can assume she's paying him handsomely. This whole introductory scene between the two is really smartly written; free of any official obligation to each other just yet, they feel each other out, lay down the rules and guidelines and expectations, figure out if it's going to be a good fit. Even if he agrees, he admits he has just a 1-for-3 success rate so far. Not exactly easy, what she's asking. But she's clearly in enough pain to make that 33 percent chance more than worth the risk, and the money.
I only wish all the other scenes between the two were as intelligent or as interesting. Instead, once they're locked into the house - surrounded by a closed salt circle that cannot be crossed until the ritual is complete, lest they both become stuck in supernatural limbo forever - the same basic moments play out over and over again. They go through a few rituals, she gets frustrated at the lack of results, she dares to question his instructions, and he shouts her into submission into she finally acquiesces and they get back to the ritual. A variation of this scene must take place a dozen times during A Dark Song's 100-minute runtime; it practically feels like the majority of the screenplay is just them loudly arguing about the ritual's efficacy. Not only is Solomon's tone of voice a repetitive agitation, but the nature of the arguments weakens Sophie as a character. Here is a woman whose 7-year-old son was murdered, who has willingly sacrificed both her money and her (relative) agency, who has put everything else in her life on hold, and who has pledged who knows how many months to a mysterious ritual just for the mere chance to both make contact with her son again and pursue vengeance, via the most powerful forces imaginable, against those who killed him. To me, that sounds like someone who has more than proven her commitment. To me, that sounds like a person of relentlessness and obsession, with enough strength in her anger to move mountains.
But the way Gavin paints the picture, Sophie is mostly inclined to complain and resist and cast doubt on the very thing she signed up for with eyes wide open. Things are barely in motion and the script has instantly turned her into an unsatisfied customer with an axe to grind. In fairness, there's probably a tricky balance to pull off here - depicting the character's commitment to her arrangement, while still imbuing her with agency and basic human frailty. Granted. But it's such a persistent pattern that it feels more like the filmmaker just doesn't have any other ideas for conflict. So he gives us a string of scenes in which she gripes that she doesn't want to do this or that, and that the ritual isn't working, and then we get more of him screaming at her until she shuts up and gives in. (His verbal abuse would play better if it didn't seem like the movie were cruelly setting her up for it every time.) Her hesitance toward virtually every step of the ritual - not to mention her ongoing frustrations with the slow pace and lack of tangible evidence - makes each hesitation, and each objection, less meaningful.
The reliance on so much setup - so much dialogue, with raised voices or otherwise - largely wastes the potency of a premise and physical setting that almost demands to be lived in, experienced, rather than talked through. The house becomes a sort of waystation, existing somewhere among various physical, spiritual, temporal realities - and in fits and starts, the place really comes alive. But Gavin is unable to harness that into something truly surreal. His phenomena don't built upon each other; they make their presence felt and then fade away, leaving no trace. He can't seem to follow through on his most unnerving moments - like a scene in which Sophie hesitantly drinks human blood and then, with a sudden temporal shift, has to do the same thing, drink the same blood, all over again, as if stuck in a sort of mini-time loop that keeps her memory entirely intact. If I'm being charitable, I could argue that it's this very inconsistency that feeds Sophie's frustration, but that seems like a stretch.
That being said, the film reaches its climax with a bold, beautiful, downright alarming image unlike anything I expect to see this year. That it's accompanied by such a severely underwhelming emotional conceit is only barely enough to dull that image's impact. Ultimately, it's the film's job to give presence to its own ideas, and give meaning to its images; accepting Song's sporadic visceral thrills as anything more than that requires a leap of faith it simply doesn't earn.