In the grand pantheon of Todd Solondz characters, the protagonist of Dark Horse, the writer/director’s latest effort to hit DVD and Blu-Ray, might not be the most repulsive — he’s not a killer, abuser, or child molester — but he’s pretty darn unpleasant. Abe Wertheimer is a lazy, obnoxious narcissist, still mooching off of his affluent parents in his childhood bedroom at age 35. He bitches and complains his way through a do-nothing job at his father’s company, he throws tantrums when his mother won’t let him win at board games, and he drives a ridiculous canary-yellow Hummer that’s primarily used for trips between his parents’ house and Toys R Us.
He’s the kind of blowhard who does nothing all day and thinks he’s busy. In short, he’s a spoiled brat.
American cinema has been ripe with overgrown, perpetually-adolescent man-boys in the last ten years, but Solondz’s Abe is of a decidedly different, more disturbing breed than the lovable oafs of Judd Apatow, Steve Carrel, and Seth Rogan. He’s achieved less than nothing in his pampered life, but believes that he deserves it all and more thanks to his own God-given talent and genius. (He’ll loudly tell anyone who listens that his dad interviewed tons of people for his job, for instance — it just so happened that he turned out to be the best-qualified.)
When he begins courting a deeply troubled, heavily medicated girl named Miranda (played by Selma Blair) who is in a similar state of depressive inertia, the depths of his cluelessness and delusion are exposed in stark detail, and the hilariously awkward results are almost too painful to watch. From their very first scene together, it’s clear to everyone except Abe that this is a situation which cannot possibly turn out good, but he plunges ahead nevertheless, convinced that every decision he makes is right, and that his every failure is someone else’s fault.
After a half-dozen films over 17 years, Solondz has found himself with a reputation as something more akin to a cruel puppetmaster than a director, accused of treating his characters more like disposable playthings than people. (Belle and Sebastian even needled him about it on the soundtrack to one of his own films.) In the endless parade of petty nastiness and derangement that makes up his filmography, he’s been charged with creating freaks for the sole purpose of inviting the audience to laugh at them or feel superior to them. (Most of the time, it should be said, it’s an unfair accusation, although one that puts him in good filmmaking company — John Waters and the Coen brothers come to mind.) In the fictional universe of a Todd Solondz film, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a petulant misanthrope like Abe. But what’s different about Dark Horse is how Solondz treats him.
In his other films, Solondz might have either punished Abe, methodically and brutally, like a child pulling the wings off of a fly, or punish the audience by forcing us to watch him wreak havoc unchecked. Instead, Solondz finds a third path here, and that’s what sets Dark Horse apart from much of his previous filmography. Rather than using Abe as a vehicle to shock the audience or confront some taboo, Solondz dares us to walk with Abe as he confronts his failures and inadequacies, and even stumbles dangerously close to something that might vaguely resemble enlightenment (truly the rarest of commodities in a Solondz film). Where previously Solondz might have been cynical and confrontational, in Dark Horse he’s surprisingly compassionate — gentle, even.
Of course, you don’t have to have a PhD in psychology to see that Abe’s bluster and arrogance are hiding a deep well of crippling insecurity. His entire identity is built around convincing himself and the rest of the world that he deserves the fantastic privileges that he’s been afforded, when deep down he knows that nothing could be farther from the truth. As the film progresses and Abe’s personal failures begin to catch up with him, this gets illustrated in a series of increasingly sad and touching fantasy sequences where figures from his life — his mother, his brother, his secret office crush — appear and tell him the hard truths that he doesn’t have the guts to tell himself.
These dream sequences become more and more frequent until they are nearly indistinguishable from reality, giving the final third of the film a touch of surrealism out of Buñuel or Fellini. In particular, they result in two separate shots in the final minutes of the film that might be the most moving and haunting in Solondz’s entire catalog.
All of this isn’t to say that the notorious director of Happiness and Storytelling has gone soft. For fans of Solondz’s unique brand of suburban grotesquerie, there are plenty of laughs to be had at the vanity and hypocrisy of upper-middle-class bourgeois pretension and modern American consumer culture. (One of the film’s best gags is when Abe makes a big show to the office of being harried and busy, when the next shot reveals his oh-so-important work: hovering his cursor over the “But It Now” button of a $450 Thundercats toy on eBay.)
True to Solondz’s style, most of the other comedic moments are grounded in the inherent awkwardness of watching Abe’s pinheadedness interact with Miranda’s absurdly low self-esteem. For example, when Abe and Miranda share a first kiss that has all the romance of a tuna sandwich, she exclaims with relief, “Oh God… that wasn’t horrible!” Whether or not you’ve enjoyed Solondz’s previous work will largely determine whether you laugh or cringe at moments like this.
The cast, also includes Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken in wonderfully understated performances as Abe’s parents, is universally strong. In particular, Donna Murphy does stunning work, essentially playing dual roles as the frumpy secretary who Abe secretly fantasizes about as a glamorous, hard-boiled cougar. And newcomer Jordan Gelber’s is fantastic as Abe, in a performance that has to toe an extraordinarily difficult line between being sympathetic and unsympathetic. (The costume department also deserves particular credit for the imaginatively absurd array of novelty T-shirts worn by Abe in every scene. It can be profoundly hard to keep a straight face watching a man struggle with life’s biggest and most serious questions while wearing a shirt that proudly proclaims “SUCK IT, TREBEK.”)
Abe may not be the deepest thinker, but Solondz shows him grappling, however belatedly, with the big questions that most people either figure out sooner than Abe or not at all: What, exactly, is expected of him in this life, and what is owed to him? Whether or not he finds any answers in the end is up for debate, but regardless, simply depicting his struggle is a surprisingly compassionate turn from a director who, ten years ago, would likely have doled out substantially more brutality and humiliation to the same character. As it is, it may be Solondz’s most human film yet.
It’s a shame that such an interesting film by a prominent director would reach DVD and Blu-Ray without any special features whatsoever, but aside from those who caught it in Toronto or Venice this home release will likely be most viewers’ first chance to see it, so that in itself is a virtue.