Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Dark Song (2016)

Warning: this isn’t a film all about THE TWIST or anything unsubtle like that, but the line between talking about the plot basics and providing plot spoilers blurs given how intricate a film it is.

Sophia (Catherine Walker) hires the somewhat shady (are there any other ones in movies where the stuff actually works?) occultist Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram) to guide her through a long and horrid ritual meant to bring her in contact with her guardian angel (please don’t imagine fluffy postcard pictures here) that is supposed to fulfil a wish each for her and for him. Her wish is to get in contact with her dead son, though it becomes clear rather quickly that there must be more going on here than “just” a desperately bereaved mother grasping towards something that might overwhelm her completely. Solomon’s wish we’ll only learn at a much later point in the movie, so it need not concern us now. In any case, the man is not Sophia’s first choice for the ritual, and certainly not the kind of guy you’d want to be locked in with in an isolated house out in the least populated parts of Wales.

Which is exactly where the ritual will happen, over the course of (at least) several weeks. Solomon guides Sophia through a series of ceremonial acts, from sleep deprivation through chanting to fasting to having cold water splashed all over her, repeatedly. Well, and blood rituals. During the course of the ritual, the characters’ grip on themselves and reality starts to slip, but they also find themselves under psychic and psychological attack by powers beyond.

Liam Gavin’s low budget occult horror film (it is probably too early to declare the birth of a ritual magick subgenre?) is quite the thing. Using only a couple of actors, and mostly taking place in a handful of rooms – with some meaningfully placed nature shots and some more locations during the introduction – it is a film of fierce focus that demands a sort of attentive watching from its viewers that feels very much related to the ritual the characters go through. It is rather a slow burn, but that’s because A Dark Song is a film highly concerned with the process of the ritual itself, charting its details and the slow changes caused in its protagonists until things bend and then break in increasingly disturbing ways, and nastier things slip through – even nastier than the secrets the characters carry, though perhaps an expression of those secrets as well.

In truth, A Dark Song is a master class in escalation, just one that is little interested in escalation’s standard formulas. Rather, the build-up of tension feels like an organic part of the ritual we witness itself, turning the viewer into something of an active participant. For large swathes of the film, there’s a feeling of mounting dread, of the characters getting closer to something that is more dangerous and more alien than they actually imagine, but also of the characters themselves slowly breaking down until something raw is left that teeters on the edge between destruction and enlightenment.

On a more concrete level, this is a brilliant film, directed and written by Gavin with a great sense for mood, despite its slow pace never shuffling its feet doing nothing, and always utterly focused on what’s important for the tale it tells. Despite quite a bit of ambiguity, it is a sharp and clear film whose mysteries are just meant to be mysteries. The acting by Walker and Oram is always solid, often downright impressive, carrying the audience through what could feel too heady or just a bit silly in lesser hands.

To my eyes, this is a flawless example of the cinema of the darkly fantastic; why, it’s even a film that can not just get away with a somewhat unconventional ending but also will convince you it is the only ending that makes sense with what came before it.

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