Wednesday, December 19, 2018

In Darkness (2018)

Warning: I’m going to spoil the final twist and a lot of what comes before it, but it’s the film’s own damn fault!

Blind pianist Sofia (Natalie Dormer) leads a rather solitary life in London, clearly not having any close friends or family. One can’t help but get the impression that – outside of her work in an orchestra – stumbling onto her party girl upstairs neighbour Veronique (Emily Ratajkowski) from time to time is the closest human contact she’s got.

So it might come as a surprise to the audience when Sofia acoustically witnesses what sounds very much like the murder of Veronique and pretends neither to have known the girl nor to have heard the murder when questioned by the investigating policeman Mills (Neill Maskell). She also doesn’t mention how Veronique managed to get her a gig playing at a private party of the girl’s Serbian war criminal turned politically protected philanthropist father Radic (Jan Bijvoet).

Clearly, Sofia has some secrets of her own that somehow connect to the Yugoslavian Civil War - secrets so big, she doesn’t even come clean when she’s hunted for a USB stick Veronique managed to hide with her without her noticing. Also involved will be Radic’s right hand woman (Joely Richardson) and her brother and private hitman Marc (Ed Skrein). But we all know how professional killers are with blind women.

For the longest part of its running time, I was rather enamoured with Anthony Byrne’s In Darkness, particularly the immensely stylish ways the director finds to acoustically but also visually impress the importance of sound to its lead character, emphasising the sources of sounds and the way sound travels in the staging of many scenes.

It’s a visually rich and striking film, turning nights strangely colourful while still emphasizing the shadows at the core of its complicated and emotionally somewhat twisted plots, while never seeming to overindulge in technical trickery, creating an often dream-like world for its thriller plot to take place in instead of the surface realistically one many examples of the genre prefer. In this it shares – at least in my eyes – the feel of the best giallos, though there is, of course, a lot of Hitchcock visible too. Hitchcock is a rather unavoidable influence, really, for In Darkness doesn’t just wallow in the creation of atmosphere but is also equally adept at classicist suspense scenes, even sharing Hitchcock’s ability to turn moments that should be absolutely silly (the scene where Sofia attempts to hide a poison vial so that Radic doesn’t see it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever when you think about it, for example) into little nail biters. Some blind main character standard thriller scenes also make an appearance, but in Byrne’s hands, these turn out to be just as thrilling as they were the first time, many decades ago. There are also some wonderful action sequences, like the one where Marc saves Sofia from a bit of torture and murder, the film keeping the focus on the matter of factness with which Marc uses violence, showing instead of telling that he must do this sort of thing every day.

Dormer’s (who was also involved in the script) performance is wonderful too, at first suggesting all kinds of things going on behind a very calm facade, then always finding just the right measure for cracks in the facade to appear. She also manages – something that must be particularly difficult because this is the point where many a good performance in a thriller of this sort falters – to convince the audience that the moments when Sofia breaks down completely (and the film provides her with some psychologically nasty reasons for breaking down) are logical consequences of her character, her past, and what is happening right now, and not just the moments when the plot needs her to break down. The film has good performances all around, anyway. Especially Richardson’s Alex is a wonderfully sarcastic and ambiguous presence. Why, even Ed Skrein is sort of okay in this one.

As a movie about vengeance, In Darkness is a surprisingly complicated film too, never trying to convince the audience Sofia’s plan is either right or wrong, only that it feels like an emotional necessity to her, yet also acknowledging that she might very well be lying to herself there too. She is after, all lying to everyone else all of the time, too.

Which brings us to the film’s final plot twist, a moment so self-sabotaging and plain stupid it is difficult to reconcile it with the slick, self-assured and intelligent rest of the film. For, you see, Sofia isn’t actually blind, but apparently so deeply into The Method she’s even pretending to be blind when she’s home alone with only the camera to see her, able to block all her natural reflexes connected to her eyesight completely. Why she’s a real life Natalie Dormer, and Matt Murdock’s got nothing on her! Apart from the stupidity, needlessness - there’s no reason for her not to be blind apart from the film just wanting another plot twist – and somewhat ableist (never thought I’d use that word, but here we are) vibe of the twist, it also retroactively dumbs down what came before. Suddenly, at least half of the suspense sequences I enjoyed so much make now no sense whatsoever. The film’s concentration on sound? Just a distraction instead of a meaningful expression of its protagonist’s world through style. Half of Sofia’s actions? Utterly preposterous now. It’s as destructive a final plot twist as I’ve ever suffered through as a viewer; perhaps even worse is that I can’t even imagine why anyone involved might have thought this to be a good idea.

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