Dark country is Judge Clark Douglas' least favorite kind of music.
One wrong turn…into the dark.
"I told him to stay on I-95."
Facts of the Case
Dick (Thomas Jane, The Punisher) and his new bride (Lauren German, What We Do Is Secret) are hitting the road to start their honeymoon. Driving through the desert at night isn't exactly the most appealing idea, but Dick has confidence in his sense of direction. In the middle of the trip, they come across a seriously injured man lying in the middle of the road. Being decent human beings, the couple decides to pick up the man and bring him to a hospital. Bizarrely, the man attacks Dick, leading to a confrontation that concludes with the death of the battered man. It's only the first part of what is going to be a long, strange, and confusing night for the two lovers. Will they still be alive when morning comes?
Dark Country is the directorial debut of actor Thomas Jane, based on a screenplay by Tab Murphy (a man whose work up until now has primarily been big-budget Disney animated features like Tarzan and The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Despite the considerable credentials of both men, this low-budget flick is heading straight to DVD. The packaging makes it look like Dark Country is just another ordinary low-budget thriller, complete with a rather mundane plot description on the back of the case. Though Dark Country does have its flaws, being mundane and ordinary certainly isn't one of them. This is a peculiar, fascinating viewing experience, indicating that if nothing else Thomas Jane has a striking voice behind the camera.
The film feels very much like a directorial debut, both in positive and negative ways. It has that "show-off" sort of flair that so many first-timers demonstrate when they set out to make The Greatest Film of All Time without really figuring out exactly what that entails. The movie opens on an obscenely stylish note, with Jane's Sin City-inspired grave, noirish narration underscoring a series of colorful shots that scream, "Look at me! Look at me! I am UNIQUE!" Jane gives these early moments an almost laughably bright and vibrant color palette, making the film look like a candy-coated fever dream. This quickly segues into the film's most ambitious and impressive sequence, in which Jane provides sexual favors to German while driving down the road at 100 miles per hour to the strains of classical music. It all climaxes (in more ways than one) with ecstatic gasping and magnificent bolts of lightning stretching down out of the dark desert sky. "What's that?" German asks. "Heat lightning," Jane replies slyly. It's one of those terrifically ambitious cinematic sequences that is so well-executed it would undoubtedly make audiences applaud if this film were actually being shown in theatres.
Once Jane is doing showing off, the movie descends into less sensational territory, a vaguely Lynchian tale of murder and intrigue. Partially due to the film's low budget, much of the film simply consists of Jane and German slowly working themselves into a sense of paranoia. The packaging heavily promotes the involvement of actor Ron Perlman, but his turn is little more than a glorified cameo. It's all up to the two leads to make the film work. Their performances are quite stellar, both during the early moments of erotic attraction and the later scenes of bickering tension. I was somewhat glad to see Jane's narration disappear pretty quickly, simply because it feels more awkward than cool. On the directorial side, Jane does a nice job of establishing a sense of nervous fear as the film progresses, keeping the audience guessing as to what exactly is out there in the depths of the desert. Frankly, the actual ending is a bit predictable, but up until the late-in-the-game point when most audience members will figure out what is going on, the tension remains. That being said, the ending is still pretty cool in a, "Hey, that really ties the room together," sort of way.
The transfer is reasonably strong, though I do have a bone to pick with some of the artistic choices made in the film. Much of the movie is dark…very, very, very dark, so much so that one can barely comprehend what is going on. I realize that this is precisely what Jane is hoping to accomplish (and it retrospect, it's somewhat essential to a degree), but I personally grew rather weary of having to squint at everything in a vain attempt to discern what was what. That being said, the level of depth is quite solid and detail is pretty strong throughout. The audio is quite strong, blending an inventive and striking original score with a very active sound design mix. Supplements on the disc include a commentary with Jane, Murphy and producer Patrick Aiello and a brief making-of featurette called "Journey to Dark Country."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While Jane does a good job in terms of giving the story a sense of propulsive energy, he sometimes has a bit of trouble with the pacing. The story develops in a rather ungainly manner at times, and Jane's attempts to immerse us in the realm of the surreal feels particularly unfortunate when he doesn't actually succeed. In addition, the dialogue is all over the map, veering strangely from hyper-stylized to realistic, method-y banter.
Playing like a pretty decent, R-rated episode of The Twilight Zone, Dark Country would make a solid Friday night rental for those with a fondness for cult films and B-movies. Jane demonstrates a good deal of potential as a director, and I hope the fact that this film is being dumped unceremoniously on DVD doesn't discourage him from giving it another go.
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Scales of Justice
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