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On Location: 'Dark Horse'

Closing out the Sarasota Film Festival was the latest film from writer-director Todd Solondz, Dark Horse. It certainly seemed a curious match for the older demographic of festival-goers, given the disturbing nature of Solondz’s films. Even to describe a film like Happiness is difficult to do without offending. So when Solondz came out before the screening and pinched forth the words, “What a cute little--," he paused for reflection, "…town you have here. This is probably the saddest film I have made,” I couldn’t help but laugh slightly at the implication.

The film opens on a festive wedding reception where the party is in full swing. As the camera pans about, it lands on Abe (Jordan Gelber) and Miranda (Selma Blair) locked in their chairs at an empty table. Their vacant stares, in contrast to the surroundings, inform us immediately that these are the dark horses of this story. Like many of the protagonists in Solondz’s films, they are misfits outside the normal world of acceptance and easy joy. Sizing up Miranda as a romantic possibility, Abe locks on to her with stumbling bombast. Blair’s Miranda tolerates the clumsy advances that he interprets as an opening. From this miscommunication of romantic intentions springs the heart of Dark Horse’s story. Abe, it seems, is a man who hasn’t evolved beyond adolescence. He lives at home with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) and an over-abundant toy collection, and he has an over-sized sense of his importance in the world. He has a job, provided by his father, that he shuffles into late every day, in a T-shirt that looks as if he’s been wearing since his Bar Mitzvah.

Gelber's Abe fluctuates between bravado and collapsing depression because of his limitations. To compensate for his shortcomings Abe has developed an active fantasy life that verges on psychosis. What begins as flighty escapism devolves over time into full-blown delusion to the point that the viewer can’t discern the narrative from Abe’s imaginings. What’s consistent in the piece is Solondz’s constant heaping of disappointments on Abe. One is never sure if Solondz is sympathetic to Abe or having fun at his expense. At the outset of the screening (and others) he has said, “It’s okay to laugh…and it’s also okay not to laugh, too,” as if he doesn’t quite know what to make of the characters he’s imagined. The feeling is similar to someone running down their family’s inadequacies, and when you laugh you feel guilty.

Solondz has apparently found his muse in Selma Blair, who previously played a version of this same character in his film Palindromes. Her empty expression matches a vocal quality that reads as though any spirit of Miranda has faded long ago and only the pale shell of her remains to go through the motions. Abe, by contrast, treats her like a resuscitation dummy, constantly trying to breathe life into her simply because she’s too weary to fully reject him. The humor emerges in seeing this ‘couple’ continue forward on nothing more than the vapors of denial. When Miranda tells Abe that she doesn’t love him but wishes she did, Abe responds “That’s enough for me!”

As Abe’s father, Christopher Walken quietly embodies crippled hopes and disdain for his son. Walken, in his most pared-down performance to date, watches his son with the pallid look of a man waiting for this dark horse to emerge, yet knowing he never will. It’s almost as if the director dared the actor “to do nothing” and by simply cutting back to his dead look we would extrapolate the implications. It’s fascinating to watch an actor known for his eccentricity trust his work so fully that you can ponder whether he is even awake. The owl-like stare from his beleaguered face provided some of the film’s most enjoyable moments. While many scenes in the film are amusing, Solondz's sadness for his protagonist seems misplaced. Abe has received everything in life with little or no effort. He expects a job, a house, and a beautiful wife while he speeds about in a Hummer, all while feeling sorry for himself. Perhaps Solondz’s sadness is reflected at a culture that breeds individuals like Abe. A man so over-coddled and unchallenged to the point he is cut off from reality.

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