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Dark Horse

Dark Horse

Released 29 June 2012
Director Todd Solondz

Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair, Christopher Walken, Mia Farrow, Justin Bartha, Donna Murphy, Zachary Booth, Aasif Mandvi
Writer(s) Todd Solondz
Producer(s) Ted Hope, Derrick Tseng
Origin United States
Running Time 85 minutes
Genre Drama
Rating TBC

More of a black sheep.

Typically seen as a purveyor of uncomfortable cinema, Todd Solondz’s career-wide examination of black comedy is marked by a series of hits- see Happiness- and misses- see Life During Wartime (or don’t). His work typically reveals the underlying issues that plague modern suburban culture and his latest offering Dark Horse is no different, this time focusing on a solitary misanthrope, rather than a bunch of them.

The subject in question is kidult Abe, a thirty-something toy collector who lives with his parents, slacks off at work and hangs out at Toys R Us. Overweight, spoilt and prone to a temper tantrum or two, Abe is a thorn in the side of his parents (Walken, Farrow) and deadweight in his father’s company; he shows up in a tracksuit and struggles to complete even the most menial of tasks. When he meets fellow bundle of joy Miranda at a wedding he decides to assert himself for once and subsequently asks her to marry him. Depressed and heavily medicated, she says yes. Drama ensues. And Hepatitis B is used as a comedic plot device.

While initially Abe appears to be little more than a down-on-his-luck but loveable manchild (complete with Harry Potter posters in room and Diet Coke perpetually in hand), as the film moves along, we quickly realise that this is a character that doesn’t deserve our sympathy. Dissatisfied with his cushy life, Abe self-loathes and lashes out at those around him. One mantrum after another quickly grows tiring as we realise that there’s little more to this character. He has about as much substance as the synthetic pop music he listens to; His problems are mostly his own fault and there’s no simple resolution to his predicament. We never expect him to get the girl and the happy ending because he simply doesn’t deserve them.

A series of fantasy sequences are scattered throughout the film’s final act in which the all-knowing supporting characters appear to shatter Abe’s illusions of grandeur. Reality and fantasy are blurred pointlessly and these frequent imbalances in the narrative renders it almost impossible to care about the choices Abe makes and the outcomes they lead to.

Despite its flaws, Dark Horse does provide a couple of cheap laughs and one or two poignant moments. The perennially villainous Christopher Walken is seen garbed in a bright orange polo shirt and a ridiculous toupee, ranting about the traffic, while at work, Abe browses Thundercats action figures on eBay when he should be completing spreadsheets. Mia Farrow is entirely convincing as Abe’s overbearing Jewish mother and her domineering love for her son almost sparks sympathy for an altogether undeserving character.

In perhaps the film’s most striking scene, Abe fantasises about trekking through the rain (providing a stark contrast to the relentlessly sunny landscape) to get to Toys R Us, where he pleads with the cashier for a refund on his fiancée only to be refused as his receipt is smudgy. There’s a pervading sense of sadness to the scene as we are offered a glimpse of how Abe perceives things. Even in his fantasies Abe is rained on. It’s almost thought provoking until ruined, as Solondz has a character named Mahmoud give a ham-fisted critique of Western consumerism while wearing a neck brace. You don’t know whether to laugh or... Well, you don’t laugh.

Generally, with characters as disparate and self-loathing as this, the audience struggles to forge any sort of compassionate understanding for them, but when magic realism is added to the mix, it makes it almost impossible to get on Solondz’s wavelength and even at eighty-four minutes Dark Horse seems to outstay its welcome.

At its best, black comedy not only shames you into laughing but also makes you think about the appropriateness of laughter. Here, Solondz is merely presenting his version of a sad comedy and giving us the choice to laugh or not. It doesn’t quite work, but maybe that’s the point.

- Cathal Prendergast