Friday, 4 February 2011

VHS Quest #2. The Passion Of Darkly Noon (Philip Ridley, 1995)

The original poster for The Passion Of Darkly Noon (1995)

There are few filmmakers as boldly distinctive, audacious and yet under-appreciated as Philip Ridley. That may be because he's only made three films in the last 21 years, and none have recieved particularly wide distribution (Heartless, 2009, went all but straight to DVD). Even the cult followings his films gather are small compared to other surrealist filmmakers working outside of the system; David Lynch and Andrzej Zulawski, for example. In his native UK Ridley is all but ignored, and this - his masterwork - is still only available on VHS, should you be lucky enough to find it. A Southern Gothic tale of the occult, repression, religious allegory and cleansing revenge, this psychological thriller has roots in horror history, but also avant-garde surrealism. There's no real way to describe it, so lets get on with the plot...

The film opens to find Darkly Noon (Brendan Fraser) running through the forest - bedraggled and with bloodshot eyes, he looks as though Hell has just paid him a visit. He collapses into the middle of the road where a young delivery guy named Jude (Loren Dean) nearly runs him over. Jude picks him up and takes him to the house of Callie (Ashley Judd), a feisty and deeply sensual young woman who agrees to take in the injured man. When Darkly wakes we learn that he and his parents were part of a deeply Christian cult who lived by the bible, word-for-word. In a Waco-like assault the police murdered everyone except for the childlike Darkly, who managed to escape. Callie's world - her secularity and femininity - are new to him; one gets the feeling that he has never strayed far from home before, or seen a woman in a miniskirt. She lives in her home with "the love of my life"; a mute loner named Clay (Viggo Mortensen) who occasionally takes days-long walks into the forest, to live among nature. As Darkly falls deeply in love with Callie, and breaks his own rules (on their first day together he refuses the innocent request of getting into a spa with Callie, but he's soon voyeuristically spying on her from his home in the barn, masturbating to her presence through a crack in the wood), but is further repressed by the steely presence of Clay. The film becomes more erratic as it goes on with handheld camerawork, rich saturation, deep focus lensing and jump cutting creating a faster pace and more disorienting experience. We are very much in the mind of Darkly. One day he encounters a woman named Roxy (Grace Zabriskie) living in the woods, who claims to be the previous owner of Callie's house, and Clay's mother. She tells Darkly that she is a witch with seductive powers, and soon Darkly is visited with comic visions of his deceased parents (all smiles, but riddled with bullet holes) who confirm the fact. They tell him that he "knows what he has to do", but in the meantime he self-mutilates himself with barbed wire, to keep at bay the psychosexual feelings that are consciously developing...

The film is set over twelve days and a night, with the dawn of each new day signposted by a title card, splitting the film up like chapters in a book. Stunningly shot by DoP John de Borman, Ridley's worldview is like an apocalyptic circus - although he claims the film is not to be intellectually dissected, and he formed the images through imagination rather than direct symbolism, the giant floating shoe and wrath-of-God ending; as well as the cut-off claustrophobia of the setting and Callie's ambiguous status as a witch, confirm the film as a vision for the end of the world (or at least for these characters). The film doesn't exist in a specified time, and there are frequent references to the forest being a place that "never ends." One of the only other characters in the film is an eccentric preacher turned coffin maker, who tells us that they're "dropping like flies" - but who? And where? Is there some sort of government crackdown on organised religion? The slaughter of Darkly's townsfolk could indicate so, and his isolation - and therefore corruption and insanity - show one of two things. 1) an abandonment by God, or 2) the proposition that God's word is the one and only, and all those who defy his ways shall be punished. What is this fantastical world? Birds wrapped in barbed wire present an obvious metaphor for the forbidden fruit. But as Ridley would suggest, does this matter? It's really the feeling and emotion that The Passion Of Darkly Noon evokes that is of real importance. And that all exists in the performances...

Judd, Mortensen and Zabriskie are reliably excellent in their roles, with Mortensen in particular proving himself as an actor of great presence, grounding the central trio without saying a word. But the revelation here is an actor who often gets an undeserved amount of slack and ridicule - Brendan Fraser. It's very easy to mock him for the likes of George Of The Jungle (Sam Weisman, 1997) and Furry Vengeance (Roger Kumble, 2010), but he's also an actor with great dramatic weight and range, as proven in Gods And Monsters (Bill Condon, 1998) and The Quiet American (Phillip Noyce, 2002) - but this is his finest role. His childlike stammer and wide-eyed repression slowly transform into deeply troubled desire, with the finale seeing him going tribal; painting himself red and wielding an almighty blade in order to kill Callie and Clay. He handles the role with an odd but admirable restraint - his damaged face saying more than a thousand words. He's easy to sympathize with, but also hate - and that ear-piercing scream in the fire-blazing finale is incredibly effective. When he delivers a line like "i'm going for my walk in the dark", you forget all about The Mummy (Stephen Sommers, 1999).

Bold, brave, uncompromising and unique, The Passion Of Darkly Noon is an artistic, terrifying tour de force with an outstanding score by Nick Bicât - it'll polarize audiences like nothing else, but I found it to be nothing short of a masterpiece.

1 comment:

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