Virgil Films // 2011 // 88 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // December 6th, 2012
"What are the limits of our sympathies?" -- Todd Solondz
Todd Solondz does not make nice movies. If you are already familiar with his work, you don't need me to tell you, and chances are if you're still unfamiliar with his work after his second decade of American independent stardom, then his movies aren't for you. However, it's a point worth making, because despite the fact that Solondz doesn't make nice movies, his movies have usually been pretty defensible. Despite their dark themes and quirky take on reality, Solondz films have always shown us something worthwhile amongst the darkness. I won't claim that Storytelling or Welcome to the Dollhouse made me a better person, but I felt that the journeys into those weird worlds were rewarding. Dark Horse is the first Solondz film where I don't think that journey is rewarded. The lack of extras on Dark Horse (Blu-ray) certainly doesn't help that feeling either.
Dark Horse opens with a wedding, where Abe (Jordan Gelber, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) meets Miranda (Selma Blair, Storytelling). It's the setup for a romantic comedy, except Abe is an awkward, overweight geek who still lives in his childhood bedroom, and Miranda seems to agree to date him because she's masochistic. The rest of the film follows Abe as his relationship with Miranda highlights just how pathetic his life really is.
Abe, though he's an extreme version of the stereotype, is a familiar character from movies and TV. He's a loser who doesn't realize the full extent of his loserdom. He believes he still has a chance to make it in the world, despite the fact that he still holds an inconsequential position at his father's business and lives at home. This kind of failed man-child has made a bit of a resurgence in recent pop culture, with overweight guys and social outcasts getting their own sitcoms and movies. That makes Abe the most mainstream of Solondz's band of misfit characters.
Abe's status is at the heart of Dark Horse, and will be the sticking point for most viewers. It's really a question about why one would watch a Solondz movie. I've always felt that watching his films was like watching a nature documentary on some horrible animal; though the subject of the documentary might be foul, there's still beauty in nature and I can learn something to boot. Solondz's worldview is bleak, but his touch is often so light that the contrast creates interesting tension, and I've usually left his films feeling lighter. Dark Horse, though, doesn't have that same atmosphere. Though his touch is still light, his subject isn't black enough in many ways. Sympathizing with Abe doesn't feel like the stretch it does with Solondz's other characters, making Dark Horse less satisfying. On the flip side, however, those who've always thought his films were too dark might appreciate that the film isn't about a pedophile.
Though Dark Horse may be Solondz's most polarizing film, everyone can agree that it looks fantastic on this Blu-ray disc. Shot digitally, the 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer looks tremendous. The film plays around a lot with different color and lighting schemes, and that's well represented in solid color saturation and deep black levels across the board. Detail remains sharp in long shots and closeups, and no significant digital artifacts mar the presentation. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is clean and clear, though the balance between music and dialogue favors the music. I had to reach for the volume control a number of times during the feature.
The total lack of extras is a tremendous disappointment. Solondz doesn't make the most extras-heavy releases out there, but something would have been nice.
No matter how ambivalent I am about Dark Horse as a Todd Solondz film, I can't fault the performers on this one. Jordan Gelber is perfect as Abe, offering a surprisingly moving portrait of a contemporary man-child. Selma Blair (a Solondz regular) plays the masochistic Miranda (who is also apparently a reprise of her character from Storytelling) with the kind of beautiful ennui we've come to expect from her. Christopher Walken as Abe's father is a marvel or the deadpan expression; a short film could have been made of just Walken's reaction shots and it would be worth watching. Mia Farrow as Abe's mother is similarly mesmerizing as a figure of disappointed motherhood.
Dark Horse is far from Todd Solondz's best film. Though it has some wonderful acting, this portrait may be too gentle to appeal to Solondz's hardcore fans, but still too dark to appeal to general viewers. Though the total lack of extras on Dark Horse (Blu-ray) is a disappointment, the film is worth renting for the actors alone.
Not entirely satisfying, but Dark Horse is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Virgil Films
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated