Dark Horse (Todd Solondz, 2011)
Where: London Film Festival: Vue West End
When: 16th October 2011
I was looking forward to this film, but at the same time a little sad that I could not also go and see the 3D samurai movie in the screening downstairs. However, a dose of Todd has always worked wonders in the past. Back then in my awkward, space filling teenage years a dose of Todd was a good excuse to see how quickly I could get my step mum to not watch the film I was seeing, a small rebellion of sorts and plenty of harmless fun. So thank you Todd for those happy times with Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, truly fun moments spent laughing at my family over and over again. So what did Dark Horse have in store for me?
I knew I was on to a winner from the credits, the blingy lettering for the titles, the reality TV talent show music, this was going to be my kind of comedy. The credits cut to a Jewish wedding complete with wall to wall drunken dancing until we reach our protagonists table. Our man Abe (Jordan Gelber) tries to chat up the woman sitting next to him Miranda (Selma Blair) (who we later find out is not much better off than Abe!), he tells her he doesn't dance (I know the feeling...) and then jumps straight in and asks her out. All that was missing was a small pop up Charlie Brooker doing his Hannah Montana impression, "Awkward", "Loser." We then cut to the end of the wedding and we see Abe pursing Miranda once more at the cloakroom and manages to extract her phone number from her using a mix of pity and persistence. We then see Abe drive away in his bright yellow Hummer, music blaring.
We learn more about Abe, maybe we wish we hadn't. His father has a real estate business and Abe works for him (well, work is a loose definition - it's more like sit at his desk and then storm off the second he's asked to do any work). Abe's life is surrounded by his possessions, his car, his action figures and his posters and he has Mum and Dad with him wherever he goes. At work and at home it is his actual father Jackie (played by the excellent as ever Christopher Walken). At work his mother is played by the secretary, Marie (Donna Murphy) who does Abe's work for him and is part of Abe's mixed up fantasy world. At home he plays and takes great pleasure in beating his real mother, Phyllis (Mia Farrow) at backgammon.
Moving on to Abe's first date with Miranda, again arranged with his own force of will and her inability to say no he drives off in his Hummer, music blaring as usual to her house. He arrives with a bunch petrol station flowers in his hand only to find Miranda's mother answers the door and has no knowledge of him arriving. Instead of cutting his losses and going home he sits in his car and waits, complete with awkward gesturing to Miranda's mother until Miranda shows up loaded up groceries with not the faintest idea that he was coming over. Miranda is set up well in the film so far. We are initially made to think of her as a normal and attractive woman that is going through a hard time in her life who lives with her parents till she gets back on her feet. However, we soon get the impression that she is much like Abe in many ways, especially when she tells Abe that she plans to stop being a writer and slitting her wrists and he asks for her hand in marriage despite them hardly knowing each other. If ever you're feeling a little off kilter with the rest of the world there's one easy question to ask yourself to see how bad it really is. Would I exist as a character in a Todd Solondz film? You just better hope the answer is not yes!
Once again time passes, it feels like it may have been months, in fact it is only a week and Miranda has agreed to meet with Abe at the family home. As Miranda doesn't drive she comes over with her parents and the adults have an enthralling conversation about the traffic and road works whilst the "kids" are talking together in the room. Miranda agrees to marry Abe as long as he doesn't mind about the hepatitis B (which Abe later looks up on You Tube) and her ex Mahmood from Dubai. Abe is pretty happy at this point. His ego fuelled by lust and diet coke gets into a fight with his father that any teenager would be proud of. Abe quits his job after being criticised for not doing his work on time, although he his soon back at work only to be fired by his father and replaced by his cousin who "does what he's told". The result is that Abe storms out of the office and drives off in his Hummer, tears in his eyes and rage in his heart.
We hear a crash and a screech of tires but Todd has a twist for us which is what helps make this a great film and not just an amusing story/commentary of the modern condition. The use of repetition, both visually and one lovely song that plays out help confuse our sense of time. We are not sure whether it is years, days or months that are passing us by. Additionally Abe likes to fantasise about an affair with the Mia the secretary and the life he imagines she leads. At times like this it feels like we are Abe and a little out of the loop, except perhaps during his trip to Toys R Us, but that one I wont spoil for you! We next find Abe in the hospital waking up after a few months in a coma. He says he feels like dancing, we know he's lost his legs. Miranda arrives and says she's been cured of her hepatitis and she's expecting a child. It's pretty obvious it is not Abe's child to everyone but Abe. Since being cured of her hepatitis Miranda has found a new lease of life, she is now dating Abe's successful brother Richard (Justin Bartha) who Abe detests and his cousin Justin (Zachery Booth) who has replaced him at work now has the affection of Marie. The next time we see Abe he's looking a rather yellow, "The chances of losing both legs in a car crash and contracting hepatitis are about a billion to one," he says.
Cruelty doesn't pass with Abe's passing. At his funeral he is humiliated when Richard tells his Father that the date of Abe's death is wrong. To which he replies that the detail is not important after Abe continually tells us throughout the film he has a thing for dates and numbers. As we draw to a close Abe returns to his house where he looks at the lines on the wall where he and Richard were measured growing up, peeling back the wallpaper he finds his Dad has written that he was the dark horse of the family and in death he realises that perhaps he was wrong about everything after all. We finish with our secretary day dreaming of the life Abe says he expected her to, ghastly wallpaper, music, stuffed animals and musicals, rather than the sex, fine art and Ferrari's we saw during the rest of the film.
Sadly it looks like Dark Horse may not get much of a release outside of the festival circuit which is a great shame as it is funny, topical and very well directed. It was funny like a top notch Coen Brothers comedy and also very accessable. I really hope this gets picked up so more people can experiance what a great film I got to see last night. Apparently we can go nag the distributors on twitter and "like" the film on Facebook. I'm sure Abe would if he were still alive.