Written and directed by Todd Solondz, the misanthropic master of cult classics Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) and Happiness (1998), Dark Horse (2011) sees a return to the seemingly familiar territory of unhappy characters and the unpleasant situations they find themselves in. The film features an impressive cast for its relatively small budget, with Christopher Walken, Mia Farrow and Selma Blair supporting the lesser known Jordan Gelber in the lead role.
Abe (Gelber) is an overgrown man-child struggling with adult life. Still living in the family home and working for his dad (Walken), he is clearly frustrated and miserable. Presented as a character who had big dreams but neglected to explore them, Abe moans about his situation and seems incapable of adapting to improve his lot. He then meets Miranda (Blair), credited as ‘formerly Vi’ from Storytelling (2001). A thoroughly depressed and highly medicated woman, Miranda has recently given up on her dream of becoming a writer. An unconventional relationship soon develops between the two, but Abe’s dissatisfaction with himself inevitably sets him on a destructive downward spiral that will alter his life in the most unexpected of ways.
Never one to provide the audience with a simple protagonist, here Solondz introduces a character who seems at first glance to be a perfect candidate for an exercise in empathy. Abe is rude, petulant and lazy, but audiences will be initially drawn in by his persistent pursuit of Miranda, in spite of her clear indifference to him. Though he behaves appallingly both at work and at home, his early interactions with Miranda create an interesting dichotomy of empathy. Unfortunately, Abe’s behaviour grows increasingly worse and it isn’t long before the audience are left with an overwhelming indifference to both the character and film as a whole.
Though the interactions between Abe and the other characters are interesting enough, the film shifts the focus towards Abe’s subconscious and a number of imagined interactions. Unfortunately, these sequences are only engaging to a point and quickly descend into surface statements offering little meaning that the audience could not have already gathered. Whilst a certain amount of goodwill should be afforded to a title with high ambitions, these wanderings into Abe’s subconscious will ultimately leave the viewer with little to enrich their experience.
Despite its flaws, Dark Horse does have some endearing qualities. The first half of the film is dominated by solidly black comedy and features a range of uncomfortably funny interactions. The film really excels when presenting Abe’s awkward relationship with Miranda and the misery that binds them together. Making for an interesting comparison, the audience are presented with a protagonist who didn’t attempt to follow his dreams, alongside a love interest who tried but failed to achieve hers.
Dark Horse is initially funny and interesting, but gradually becomes rather dull and uninspiring. Combined with a misleading trailer and high expectations, Solondz’s latest production makes for a sadly disappointing experience.