Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Passion of Darkly Noon

The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995) is a strange film. One that features Brendan Fraser covered in red paint and barbed wire, Viggo Mortensen as a mute carpenter, and the unforgettable image of a large silver boot floating down a river. It is quite unlike any other film and is the brainchild of Philip Ridley, a British performance artist, filmmaker, novelist, painter, and playwright whose three feature films to date deal with the loss of innocence. Best described as a dark, fantasy tale, Darkly Noon was only his second feature film but it is a masterful one. Sadly, few people got to see the film; it was barely reviewed, and quietly disappeared to home video where it remains to be rediscovered.


Our story begins with a disheveled young man (Brendan Fraser) in a suit staggering through a forest. Exhausted, he finally collapses on a dirt road where he’s almost run over by another young man (Loren Dean) driving a pickup truck. He takes him in and drives to a nearby house. The driver’s name is Jude and we are soon introduced to one of the house’s occupants. Callie (Ashley Judd) is a beautiful young woman who appears walking out of the forest. Ridley stages this scene during a sunny day so that the tall grass is a vibrant green, which is in sharp contrast to Callie’s blue jeans and snow white t-shirt. She takes in the young man who stays conscious long enough to look into her eyes and grab her hand.

“Does God play jokes?” – Jude
“All the time.” – Callie

Among the man’s possessions, Callie finds a copy of The Bible with the words, “Darkly Noon,” written in it. This turns out to be the young man’s name, which he says was chosen randomly from the book by his parents. It comes from 1 Corinthians 13: “For now we see through a glass, darkly,” and explores the subject of love. We find out that he comes from a very conservative religious cult that are devout followers of The Bible. Darkly fled from a Waco-style attack that killed his parents. Brendan Fraser recounts the story in timid, hushed tones, stuttering nervously while sounds of the carnage play in his head. This is a quietly powerful scene that the actor delivers with convincing intensity.

Callie lives with her boyfriend Clay (Viggo Mortensen), a mute carpenter who builds coffins for the local undertaker and is prone to taking long, spontaneous walks, “in the dark,” to think and sort out his problems. As the hot summer days run into each other, Darkly fixates on Callie, his savior. Coming from a repressive religious upbringing, she is an oddity to him: free spirited, speaks her mind and is often clad in small, summer dresses or tight blue jeans that cause him to have what he perceives as impure thoughts (c’mon! this is Ashley Judd after all). When Clay returns on the fifth day, Darkly feels threatened and jealous, as he and Callie are no longer by themselves. His behavior becomes increasingly erratic and a conflict is inevitable.

By the time Darkly spots a large silver boot floating down a river, you know things are only going to get stranger as we perceive the world through this troubled young man’s warped perspective. Things get even weirder when Grace Zabriskie shows up as Roxy, a crazy woman who lives in a trailer out in the forest. She befriends Darkly and tells him about a monster that lives in the forest and eats young men. She also tells him that Callie is a witch that stole her husband. This feeds into his skewed worldview, sending him over the edge. Ridley employs quick jump cuts to convey Darkly’s increasingly fractured mind and the explosive climax recalls Apocalypse Now (1979) channeled through the sensibilities of Lars Von Trier.

Ridley has a real knack for making the settings in this film come to life and become almost like another character. There is a scene where Callie takes Darkly to a cave in the heart of the forest and it is filled with an impressive array of stalactites and stalagmites. It is an absolutely stunning location that eventually becomes Darkly’s lair. Another excellent example is a scene in which Jude says of Callie, “She’s like a forest – wild sort of beauty,” and Ridley pans over an incredible shot of an expansive forest that seems to go on forever as we see Darkly and Jude dwarfed by the environment. Ridley’s attention to the environment and its affect on the characters reminds me of the way Peter Weir conveys the same relationship in his films, specifically Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), which shows the duality of the environment – at once beautiful and ominous, much like what Ridley is doing in Darkly Noon. The forest represents the entire world for these characters. It is initially a haven for them but eventually is transformed into a hell on earth.

Interestingly, the passage in The Bible that proceeds the one in which Darkly is named after, reads, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” This could easily describe Darkly’s arc over the course of the film. When we meet him he resembles an innocent child but once that innocence is destroyed he becomes a man. Ridley’s previous film, The Reflecting Skin (1990), ended with the protagonist running away from his dying family, stumbling through a field until he falls, Intriguingly, Darkly Noon begins with its protagonist running away from his dying family, stumbling through a forest. It’s as if the protagonist from The Reflecting Skin grew up to become the one in Darkly Noon.

Known mostly for goofy comedies like George of the Jungle (1997) and Dudley Do-Right (1999), every so often Fraser tries something different, like Gods and Monsters (1998) or The Quiet American (2002) or The Passion of Darkly Noon. They demonstrate his range and ability to do good work while the mainstream crap he does to pay the bills. Normally playing gregarious goofballs, he delivers a fascinatingly internalized performance for most of the film as a very shy, repressed individual. Fraser even adopts a slight stutter and his often-blank expressions and intense stares hint an inner turmoil that gradually boils to the surface as the film progresses. The actor explores depths with Darkly Noon that he had never done before or since for that matter. Think of this film as his Taxi Driver (1976) and Darkly is his Travis Bickle, a deeply disturbed loner obsessed with a woman he can never have. Darkly’s descent into madness is impressive to watch and Fraser’s slow burn on the way to get there is mesmerizing.

Darkly Noon is a potent reminder of the kind of adventurous roles Ashley Judd took on early in her career with films like Ruby in Paradise (1992) and Smoke (1995). She had only been acting for four years prior to this film with very few substantial credits to her name. She conveys a relaxed confidence with Callie, a woman who is comfortable in her own skin and this intimidates Darkly who is not used to this kind of image of femininity. Clay is mute which forces Viggo Mortensen to communicate through body language, perfect for such a physically expressive actor as evident in the action/adventures he’s done, like The Lord of the Rings trilogy or Hidalgo (2004). Through hand gestures and facial expressions, the actor delivers a fascinating performance. Aside from Grace Zabriskie, Mortensen was the most experienced actor in the cast and had already done excellent work in films like The Indian Runner (1991), Carlito’s Way (1993), and Ridley’s first feature film, The Reflecting Skin.

What critics did review The Passion of Darkly Noon were unimpressed with it. In his review for Variety, Todd McCarthy felt that Ridley, “puts a good cast to work on a tale scarcely worth telling … Not likely to gain critical support, this looks like a forlorn commercial entry in most markets.” The Independent’s Adam Mars-Jones wrote, “The film stands or falls by the resonance of its images, not by the repeated profundities of the dialogue.” In his review for The Times, Geoff Brown wrote, “At best Ridley achieves a fable’s cryptic simplicity … At worst, all we see is intellectual vacuity and a self-conscious striving for effect.” The Observer’s Tom Lubbock felt that the film was “indeed poetical, imagistic, visionary, surreal, symbolic, and more. But to get the best from Darkly Noon, the title is one of the several things about it that are best ignored.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “D-“ rating and criticized its “bombastic dialogue, bad acting, tawdry prurience and inane plot developments.” The one lone positive reaction came from Fangoria, which praised Fraser’s performance: “This is unlike anything else Fraser has done, surrounded by more acclaimed actors, he nonetheless dominates the screen.”

The Passion of Darkly Noon is a fascinating parable about the extremes of religious devotion – how it corrupts and warps, often with tragic results. Ridley’s film warns of the dangers of ignorance and fanaticism. He has crafted a very unusual horror film that stays with you long after it ends. It is very stylized in nature, from the way it looks to how the characters speak and what they say – hence the dark, fairy tale vibe. This actually works in Darkly Noon’s favor and is also part of its appeal – if you’re willing to take the leap of faith that it requires.

NOTE: The Passion of Darkly Noon is available streaming on Netflix.

6 comments:

  1. So good to see some love for this film. I'm sure your review will prompt many folks to catch this for the first time (loved your comparisons re Apocalypse, Von Trier and Bickle).

    Ridley really is a special talent, and his Heartless feature is already a firm favourite of mine. Excellent review.

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  2. "The Passion of Darkly Noon is a fascinating parable about the extremes of religious devotion – how it corrupts and warps, often with tragic results. Ridley’s film warns of the dangers of ignorance and fanaticism. He has crafted a very unusual horror film that stays with you long after it end.."

    You've piqued my interest here big-time J.D. I have not seen this film, and this is the first review of it I've come across in a very long time. The stars alone would urge a viewing. Beautifully written piece!

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  3. Steve Langton:

    Thanks, my friend! I noticed that HEARTLESS has popped up on Netflix streaming. I am really curious to check it out based on his work in DARKLY NOON.


    Sam Juliano:

    Thanks for stopping by, Sam. It is quite an interesting film and definitely worth checking out. Thank you for the kind words.

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  4. Fascinating review, you've convinced me to seek this one out. I was glad you gave Fraser his due, as the films you mentioned point out, he is a fine actor when he wants to be.

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  5. Ahhhh, blonde Ashley Judd. Can't pass up a film with blonde Ashley in it!

    I have a strong dislike for Brendan Fraser but your review, Viggo, and blonde Ashley, may be enough to get me to watch it.

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  6. Brent:

    It's an intriguing film to be sure. I always liked Fraser but he does way too many goofy comedies and this film proves that he's got the chops to do other kinds of films. I hope you check this film out, I'd be curious to know what you think.


    Will:

    If you like Judd, you will definitely like this film. She looks so young in this one and is very good in it as well. If you don't like Fraser, this film might change your mind - it is very different from pretty much anything he's ever done (save maybe GODS & MONSTERS).

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