Overview: A grieving mother seeks the help of an occultist to contact her dead son. IFC Films; 2017; Not Rated; 100 Minutes.
Truth: Last year, I was blown away by Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, a horror mystery that succeeded in being affecting, thrilling and surprising by telling the 100% truth from start to finish. It’s a strange formula for any film looking to establish tension and unnerving control over its audience, and it’s hard to think of any comparative examples of films which presented multiple situational possibilities and then delivered on all of them. Now, we have another. Liam Gavin’s A Dark Song sees grieving mother Sophia (Catherine Walker) seek the assistance of occultist Joseph (Steve Oram) in contacting her deceased son. Early on, it’s unclear whether the Grade-A atmospheric power of the movie, achieved through a combination of Ray Harman’s music, Cathal Watters lensing, and Anna Maria O’Flanagan’s editing, is feeding into a story about the danger that these two broken souls present to one another (specifically, at first, the alcoholic Joseph upon the highly vulnerable Sophia) or one about the spiritual danger posed by actual black magic. Turns out, it’s both. A Dark Song works as an essay about seeking answers to unanswerable questions and pursuing remedies to incurable grief and damage, and as a rare black magic thriller.
Magic: But the boldest element in Gavin’s film may be its third act, which, after a grueling dive into suffering, despair, and desperation, swims headfirst into its thoroughly-researched and impressively illustrated black magic mythology, allowing for both an explosion of long-awaited and well-earned unnerving horror and an awe-inspiring sequence of spiritual redemption. As difficult as it is to withhold supernatural horror from horror-expecting viewers, I can think of few examples of films that dip this deep into the well of human misery, but pull back to a note of redemption and spiritual peace. What this stretch lacks in impressive effects is more than made up for by the emotional payoff earned by Gavin’s honest storytelling and his cast’s viscerally introspective commitment.
Realism: As Joseph, Oram manages to inject the story with both fear and eventual sympathy, a guide whose psychological devils make him ill-equipped to take on demons or angels or any other literal spirits. But Walker is an absolute standout here, her performance clearing the way for the aforementioned bold turns, allowing for a mighty amount of emotional landscape to be covered. Her performance makes sure that nothing has to be assumed from its central character. Sophia’s mourning is felt, her increasing despair and hopelessness through the process is felt, and her final moment of peace is deeply felt.
Overall: There’s both a strange Kubrickian influence on the pacing and architecture A Dark Song‘s early scenes and a steadfast storyteller’s confidence in the unexpected vision of the final act that should make anyone excited for more from this first time filmmaker.
Featured Image: IFC Films