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Dark Horse

2011 | 86 min | 1.85:1

Dark Horse


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Theatrical release date

 13 July, 2012
 29 June, 2012

Country of origin

 United States

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Dark Horse


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Dark Horse Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, July 28, 2012

The filmography of writer/director Todd Solondz has a specific tempo of idiosyncrasy in common, yet the manifestation of this deliberate oddness has taken many forms during his career, displaying a particularly vibrant ease with the uncomfortable in 1995’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and his best picture, 1998’s “Happiness.” While always an interesting storyteller, Solondz has seen the latter part of his career hit an undeniable repetitiveness, clouding his once crystalline vision for domestic disorder. His latest, “Dark Horse,” offers a wealth of small pleasures, but as a whole, it fails to make much of an impact, exhausting direction the longer it pursues a dreamscape tone that only seems to retain perfect shape in the helmer’s head.

Abe (Jordan Gelber) is a defeated fortysomething man unwilling to shed the comfort of his Peter Pan syndrome. Living at home with dour parents Jackie (Christopher Walken) and Phyllis (Mia Farrow), Abe’s surrounded himself with toys and trinkets, keeping himself infantilized while his brother, Dr. Richard (Justin Bartha), outshines him in every way. Working for Jackie, Abe attempts to inflate his importance with flashy cars and jewelry, also hoping to marry crush Miranda (Selma Blair), a sluggish woman with Hepatitis B who still clings to her ex, Mahmoud (Aasif Mandvi). Refusing to admit his life is a fiasco, Abe takes comfort in his delusions, often taking the form of Marie (a spry Donna Murphy), the office secretary, who confronts the man-boy with advice and displays of provocative behavior.

From a certain perspective, there’s maturation to Solondz’s work on “Dark Horse.” Though it deals with unpleasant topics and unlikable characters, the picture remains relatively peaceful, focusing most of its attention on Abe’s juvenile world. Driving a massive yellow humvee, wearing his own name on a chain around his neck, and filling his workspace and bedroom with action figures, Abe is a child who’s lost his way, unchallenged by family members for decades while he’s cocooned himself in distractions, hoping to sell himself as a fun-loving guy to those who would rather see him achieve adulthood. It’s a brutal character to watch, blending unjustified ego with petulant behavior, yet he remains a singular fixation for a filmmaker known for his work with ensembles and stories of dysfunctional families. Not that Abe’s parents and brothers are well-adjusted people (Walken nails the dazed state of disregard), but Solondz is primarily curious about what makes Abe tick, leaving “Dark Horse” his most intimate effort yet.

Gelber is quite remarkable as Abe, with a performance that touches childish hostility and obvious mental fatigue while maintaining a painfully transparent display of fraudulent self-esteem. As the titular character (a brand placed on Abe by his father, who long ago gave up on his son), Gelber has to be a wholly obnoxious character, yet remain soft enough for viewers to believe in his opportunity for love with Miranda, despite the obvious medical and mental roadblocks she’s raised. It’s a brave performance, especially when delivered so broadly -- a rare quality in a Solondz picture. Gelber lifts the movie with his conviction, also preserving a touch of misery about the character, who, in the second half of the film, is confronted with a life misspent through a horrible turn of events. Although the ensemble dutifully commits to Solondz’s static, Gelber finds the flavors of bluster and deterioration, making Abe a complex realization of delayed adulthood. Delayed possibly past a point of no return.

There’s a question of Abe’s sanity that keeps “Dark Horse” appealing, observing the man converse repeatedly with Marie, experiencing her fluctuating shyness and radical changes in personality. There are also a few visits to a land of unreality, confronting Abe with his fears and uncertainties. The surreal stance of the movie grows more impatient as the film unfolds, culminating in a final shot that essentially reworks the entire perspective of the feature seconds before the end credits hit the screen. It’s a playful move by Solondz, but a little on the late side, sure to leave many feeling disoriented or possibly cheated. Of course, “Dark Horse” is a picture built entirely out of confusion, creating pockets of vulnerabilities and scorn that carry weight as individual scenes, but rarely collect in a significant manner, at least meaningful enough to care deeply for the switcheroo finale.

Starring: Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair, Christopher Walken, Donna Murphy, Justin Bartha, Mia Farrow
Director: Todd Solondz

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