AMAD-Horror Edition: Dark Country

1 Oct

EXCLDarkCountry

October 1st,2009–

Wow. October’s already here! From this point forward I’m gonna set a genre for AMAD and stick to it for the entire month. This time, it will be horror films–surprise, surprise!–and every day from here to October 31st I’ll be highlighting a different one, preferably something I haven’t seen before. Below, I’ll throw up the lineup for the next five days so you can keep track. So, let’s get started today with the Thomas Jane directed thriller Dark Country that mixes 3/4 noir with 1/4 Twilight Zone and produces an interesting modern riff on the ‘killer on the deserted highway’ motif.

cinemagrade b-I have alot of respect for Thomas Jane as an actor. He’s consistently taking roles and projects that aren’t a ‘sure’ thing and even if they don’t always pan out (Mutant Chronicles) he gets the credit for mixing it up and taking risks. He’s also quite talented and more than capable of elevating a movie with his performance. He’s easily the best thing about The Punisher 2004 and hits all the right notes in The Mist. He also seems relatively grounded and in-touch with his work and his fanbase. Jane and David Arquette brought the entertaining and silly The Tripper to The Senator Theater’ in ’07 and had alot of fun screening it for the audience that showed.  You can see from the clip below that they really got into the event and were not concerned with  holding themselves at a distance from the audience. Top that all off with the fact he’s a native son of Baltimore.

 So, it’s nice to be able to come away from a viewing of Jane’s new film Dark Country and attest to the fact that he’s also a competent and skilled director. Drawing quite heavily from old pulp fiction and 40’s noir thrillers, Jane constructs a movie that is mostly style and atmosphere and wields that fact as a strength instead of a weakness. The story isn’t terribly original and most will see where this  twisted road is headed early on, but before the destination arrives there’s a thrilling and enjoyable ride in store for the viewer.

One of the strangest things about Dark Country, which hits DVD next week, is that it was originally filmed in 3-D and then failed to gain a theatrical release. This is something of a shame, since Jane has  arranged the shot compositions and action sequences to evoke the same kind of 3-d style that Hitchcock utilized in Dial M for Murder. I think it would have added to the film’s antique charms and only further ensured its lurid thriller pedigree.

It’s clear that Jane understands and adores this specific sub-genre of films. His Dark Country has the jaded, hard-edged narrator, the sultry femme fatale and the imposing police officer, all threatened and provoked by the menacing stranger who meets them on that midnight stretch of abandoned highway. You can almost visualize William Shatner and Ann Margaret as the couple in the car and perhaps John Carradine as the officer. That sense of the familiar is never far from the film, and yet Jane rings a sufficient number of spooky thrills from the premise.

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Jane and the waifish Laura German play a newly married couple who met in Vegas, apparently fell in love and then tied the knot in a relatively seedy fashion. Now they are careening out across the Nevada desert, racing off to their life together in Jane’s Dodge Seneca. These early sequences give an eerie artificiality to the night-time desert, the distant heat lightning and the claustrophobic interior of the car.

Matte process shots of passing scenery are played outside of the car ala Hitchcock and the film stock has a strange desaturated look that reminds of a picture like Sin City or Sky Captain. There are a number of presumably CGI backgrounds that give a similar sense that the movie isn’t existing in a real universe but rather in a pot-boiler graphic novel. When the would-be honeymooners stumble upon a bloodied and almost unrecognizable accident victim, their lover’s drive devolves into a nightmare from which they cannot untangle.

The remaining details are best left to discovery because they make up the film’s rollercoaster of genre conventions. What is important is that the Nevada desert is foreboding and almost supernaturally expansive. The acting is unusually strong and I found I warmed quickly to both Jane and German as the central characters. Jane, in particular, is very good and evokes an older acting style that feels different from his work in other films.

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True to the noir hero template, he’s trying to do the right thing but tonight the right thing has decided it doesn’t like arid heat and cacti and caught the first bus out of town. I imagine he studied similar actors in similar roles, and he perfects a kind of deer-in-the-headlights approach to forward action. He’s always moving, always thinking, always doing and keeps digging himself in deeper. One of the things I was impressed by was the fact that we never suspect Jane himself of wrong doing.

German’s character seems like a likely candidate for attracting unsavory company–the man on the road might have a connection to her–or worse yet, maybe she’s setting Jane up to take a fall. When Perlman arrives, walking stoically out of the all consuming glare of his headlights, he’s almost instantly a suspect. There’s a clever subversion of the structural elements of psychological thrillers happening here, and the movie gets away with it because the characters work and sell the premise. I personally could have followed them further down the road for just a bit longer.

And that’s perhaps my biggest complaint with the film. As an homage to its source material it is without blame. As a visually successful and entertaining thriller, again, it comes through. But as a movie–with a satisfying three act structure–it comes up just a little short. The script has imagined Country as a Twlight Zone-esque jaunt through supernatural incident and sordid human nature. However, I wish there were more to it. Once we get on-board with the film and the surreal nightmare web it is spinning, it becomes quite possible that Jane has something really special in store.

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I was disappointed (but not terribly so) to realize that there isn’t much to the film’s conclusion and although it plays completely fair with the narrative elements it just isn’t that satisfying. But before that, standing out in the warm desert air while Jane and German stare off into the thick night over an open grave they themselves have dug, Dark Country folds you confidently into its creepy embrace.

Good thrillers are hard to come by and a good riff–on any genre–is also a difficult thing to pull off. The director must understand the strengths and weaknesses of the genre and how to navigate them. From a visual and thematic standpoint, Jane knocks it out of the park. This is one good looking flick and it uses all of its rather small cast quite effectively.

If Country had updated its story from the 1930’s contrivance that runs it, it might have well exceeded the sub-genre. The talent is here and the passion is here. Jane knows how to shoot a film, how to capture emotions appropriate for the story he’s telling, and maybe best of all, he understands the latent power of a well-placed Ron Perlman. That, in and of itself, is a gift.

The line-up for the next five days:

Oct 2nd–AMAD: Pig Hunt

Oct 3rd–AMAD: Trick ‘R’ Treat

Oct 4th–AMAD: Sauna

Oct 5th– AMAD: Night of the Demon

Oct 6th–AMAD: Kaidan

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8 Responses to “AMAD-Horror Edition: Dark Country”

  1. Xiphos October 1, 2009 at 8:13 pm #

    Tom Jane is always at least dependable but mostly he’s far beyond that. I will watch anything even if its bad becasue of Janes presence.

  2. Nathan Bartlebaugh October 1, 2009 at 9:46 pm #

    xi, this is up your alley then. It’s Jane and noir thriller. Good stuff. I can’t wait for his 40’s detective flick with Russel Mulcahy. Jane has the right presence for the era and I seriously hope he directs another movie. This is definitely worth seeing.

  3. Xiphos October 2, 2009 at 2:30 am #

    Yeah I’ve been looking forward tot his movie since I heard about a few months back. Jane has that “it” factor.

  4. scrawlerjarv October 2, 2009 at 4:32 am #

    Thomas Jane? I like his Punisher, and really didn’t like The Mutant Chronicles.

    I’ve never heard of this, but it doesn’t really grab me.

  5. Nathan Bartlebaugh October 2, 2009 at 8:03 am #

    jarv,
    did you ever see The Tripper? It’s got a guy in a Reagan mask killing hippies with a golf club? Definitely amusing.

  6. Xiphos October 2, 2009 at 12:40 pm #

    Killing hippies with a golf club? Hell yeah I’m in! I need to see this movie like yesterday.

  7. lord bronco October 3, 2009 at 5:49 am #

    Hey-just supporting the cause–Jane is Epic in the HBO series HUNG. Please review Sauna for wherever.

  8. Nathan Bartlebaugh October 4, 2009 at 9:22 am #

    Hey Bronco! Thanks for stopping by. You should totally use this image as your avatar picture: http://cache.gawker.com/assets/stills/gentlemenbroncos_io9.flv.jpg.

    Sauna is two movies away from being reviewed. It, and Trick or Treat, will be up later today.

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