Directed by Todd Solondz. Starring Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair, Christopher Walken, Mia Farrow, Justin Bartha, Donna Murphy Club, IFI, Dublin, 85 min
WE BEGIN with a shot of two people – male and female, though not yet a couple – sitting at a table while staring enigmatically into space. We are in New Jersey. The plain, middle-aged man (Jordan Gelber) is a deluded loser with an interest in the most hackneyed corners of popular culture. The icily pretty girl (Selma Blair) harbours her own collection of oppressive neuroses. Later, they embark on a queasy, unlikely semi-romance.
Do you know who it is yet? No, it’s not a James Cameron film.
No, we’re not in Michael Mann territory. Dark Horse is, of course, the latest from arch-miserablist Todd Solondz.
The new picture feels as much like a Solondz film as Moonrise Kingdom felt like a Wes Anderson film. But, unlike the Anderson piece, Dark Horse doesn’t play like an exercise in treading water.
Solondz is certainly well within his (ahem) discomfort zone. But the characters are as messily compelling as those he conjured up for Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse. The picture is funnier than anything he has yet made. There are worse ways of playing familiar themes.
Dark Horse features outstanding supporting turns from Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow as the protagonist’s parents: his trousers are constantly pulled up to the midriff; her hair is lacquered into a resistant helmet. But, to a greater extent than any Solondz project since Dollhouse, Dark Horse is concerned with investigating the innards of just one central character.
Gelber’s Abe is a magnificently grim creation whose lack of self- awareness is represented (not altogether subtly) by his belief that driving a yellow hummer makes him seem cool.
The usual worries announce themselves. As events progress – it transpires that Blair’s character has hepatitis; Abe’s dad wants to fire him from the family firm – we again begin to wonder if there is any end to Solondz’s apparent misanthropy. The director has, however, always claimed that he genuinely loves his characters. If you can convince yourself this is true, then you will find plenty to savour. A real return to form.