Dark Horse (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Dark Horse (2012)

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I was a bit surprised to see so many attractive people dancing at the beginning of Dark HorseTodd Solondz films have always centered around the delusional outsiders who may be attractive in their own way, but not in the toe tapping wedding that opens the film.  All those smiling faces start to seem a bit too choreographed, the dresses and suits a bit too shiny, then finally the camera focuses on a large, self-satisfied man sitting by a morose woman.

There's Abe.  Pathetic Abe, listening to endless cds of mindlessly inspirational pop, whose entire family has passed him by and is only able to live with him to the extent they can ignore what he is.  He's made himself a fixture at his parent's home and commercial real estate business but it's not clear he ever contributed anything other than laughing scorn.  There's Miranda.  She's the sudden apple of Abe's eye who he pursues relentlessly for a date because her doomed literary career has sent her into a shame spiral so deep that a relationship with Abe starts to seem like, if not a good idea, then one that will let her live life with slightly less shame.

Abe is what you see in the last stop of a pointless life filled with empty privilege.  What's different this time around is that Solondz's focus is less on the environment that produced Abe and has made what may be his first real character study.  This emphasis on the who and why of the man-child results in one of Solondz's most straightforward films but one that aches with genuine sadness where so many have stepped back to embrace nihilistic chuckles.  There's still a lot of darkness in this film, but for once the players at least have the faintest hope of improvement.

Abe has every opportunity to see himself in any number of ways but will always go right back to whining and bad pop.

Really enjoying Dark Horse is a bit of a challenge because we're saddled with Abe the whole time.  He resents his brother's success despite his brother working hard, he mooches off of his parent's without thanks, he forces his work on a secretly despairing coworker, he's far and away the most reprehensible character of 2012.  Yet, there's a secret to Solondz's writing and a lot of that depends on an amazing performance in the role by Jordan Gelber.  His performance walks the exact tightrope that Shakespeare talked about in Hamlet, though anchored around likability instead of being blandly memorable.

Gelber infuses each one of Abe's hideous personality traits with the hint of the person he could have been.  Yes, it is disrespectful that Abe would come back into the office after his father (excellently played by Christopher Walken) fired him.  But listen to the comic timing in Abe's voice as he responds to his coworkers and hapless family - he's witty, to a point, and could have made something of that.  Watch again as he tries to impress Miranda (Selma Blair) with meandering and desperate tales of how numbers obviously mean something.  He sells it for every pseudospiritual meaning he can and you get the sense if maybe he just took a little better care of himself or really learned something of interest this would have worked.  Gelber flawlessly navigates the tricky minefield of making someone so repellant watchable by showing bits of what he could have been.

In other Solondz films there's some kind of attempt to show how the environment shaped or encourages the behavior of the characters.  This is most notable in his debut film Welcome to the Dollhouse when in one aching shot he shows how bullying begets more hate.  But here there's the sense that the sterile homes and nondescript offices of his town are less the sign of consumerism gone bland and more people doing what they need to do to live.  Solondz goes to great pains to show how his parent's and amazingly patient brother (Justin Bartha) have tried to accommodate him over the years.  There are mistakes (Abe's father really should know not to keep calling his boy a dark horse every time he failed,) but it's less the product of the land and more the perfect storm for someone like Abe to fester and fail.

Dark Horse marks the first time in years Christopher Walken has put in a great performance not mired in eccentricity or self-parody.

Abe barely gets by and through the grace of charity and a strangely protective coworker (Donna Murphy) until something happens.  What, I'll leave you to discover, but it changes the film from a bleakly funny if straightforward presentation of Abe and his failed life to a surrealistic tragedy.  The narrative becomes disjointed as Abe is haunted by visions of his family telling him the blunt truth of his life and what it is worth.  Those criticisms grow so intense it becomes less likely that they have finally developed the spine to force him to grown up and may be signs of a darker fantasy.

The first half of the film, with its straightforward presentation, is the reality.  Abe has and always will be a failure only able to succeed with people that have given up.  But the fantasy, and this is what really saddened me, is that any one of his family members could tell him what he needs to hear years later and it would make a difference.  They appear and disappear only to deliver the coldest of truths and, in the end, what does it really matter?

The final two shots answer it all.  For Abe, absolutely nothing.  For those he left behind, just enough hope to hurt them knowing they expected so little.

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Dark Horse (2012)

Written and directed by Todd Solondz.
Starring Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair, Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken.

Posted by Andrew

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