You Have to See… is a weekly feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time. Once this group has seen the film, the suggestor writes a piece advocating the film and the others respond below. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
This week Anthony Calamunci looks at Todd Solondz’s most recent feature, Dark Horse.
Dark Horse opens on a shot of the dance floor at a wedding. Upbeat dance music is playing, and it is by all appearances a festive, joyous occasion. The groom enthusiastically lifts and twirls the bride. The camera slowly swings away to reveal who this story is really about, coming to rest on a medium shot of a man and woman sitting at a table, decidedly not taking part in the festivities. The two look similar only in their lack of interest. There is a mirror behind them, in which we can see the others dancing, making the contrast all the more apparent. One gets the sense that they have never been a part of this world of dancing and smiles and good cheer. Either that or they abandoned it long ago. The man, Abe, leans toward the woman, Miranda, and over the loud music says, “I never dance.” Miranda responds only with a tepid, patronizing smile before turning back to previous expression, looking as quietly miserable as before.
This anti meet cute sets the tone of Dark Horse perfectly. Like the best of Todd Solondz’s work, it is hilarious, dark, brutally honest, and insightful.
At its core, Dark Horse is a character study. The character in question is Abe Wertheimer (played brilliantly by Jordan Gelber), the prototypical loser/manchild/schlub. He is in his thirties and still lives with his put-upon parents, with no plans to move out. He works at his father’s real estate company, where he puts in minimal effort, secure in the knowledge that he won’t get fired. He is a pop culture fanatic and toy collector. What sets Abe apart from the countless other characters of this archetype is he isn’t at all lovable. In fact he’s kind of an asshole. While he seems genial and well-meaning enough in those first scenes where he meets Miranda, there are oceans of entitlement and rage never far from the surface. He views himself as a victim, a perpetual underdog in a world that conspires against him, the titular “dark horse.” He hates (or at least childishly claims to hate) his father (who’s “an asshole,”) and his brother, a successful doctor (whom he resents for being the golden boy and favorite son). Anyone who reminds Abe of his own failures is the enemy. His mother, who humors and indulges his childlike outbursts, is less frequently the object of his ire.
Todd Solondz has been criticized for basically his entire career for viewing his characters with disgust. If you are already of that opinion, Dark Horse will do little to convince you otherwise. Abe’s patheticness and general awfulness are where the film derives much its humor from, but that’s only half the story. As misguided as his anger might be, it is still an earnestly felt emotion, and as the film goes on we are made to feel a bit more empathetic, even if Abe never “redeems himself” (something out of a different, and worse, I think, film). And for all his faults, it’s hard not to relate to Abe at least some of the time. In those opening scenes, when he keeps trying to talk to Miranda despite her clear lack of interest, you have to admire that this guy (who has more likely than not had no luck with women) is courageously putting himself out there.
What Solondz is interested in here is exploring the psychology of this character, a man it’s easy to enjoy feeling superior to, but also one that many people share an uncomfortable amount of traits with. Through Abe, Solondz invites us to examine the self-pity and entitlement present in all of us.
Abe’s world is quickly, efficiently established. Within the first seven minutes we have a pretty good idea of what this guy’s day to day life is like. We see his home life, his work life, his dynamic with his mother as well as with his father, and a contentious exchange with a customer service person at Toys ‘R’ Us. And of course, we know his musical taste (Abe listens to some of the dopiest, cheesiest pop music you’re ever like to hear, with uber-bright, clean production, and lyrics like “So much could happen on a night like this/We could make the memory of our first kiss/We could fall in love under the milky way/Together, together!”)
The first shot inside of Abe’s home tells us all we need to know about this family. Abe’s parents, Phyllis and Jackie (Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken) sit on the couch watching television. We hear a laugh track, which humorously contrasts with the empty expression on Jackie’s face. The living room, in polite, bourgeois fashion, is modestly decorated with a few pieces of art. As Abe enters, Phyllis immediately turns to ask him how the wedding was. Jackie doesn’t look away from the television. Abe walks past to his room without responding to his mother. This shot (along with the preceding one of Abe’s ghastly yellow Hummer pulling into the driveway) is echoed a little later in the film, implying that the lives of these characters are characterized by routine.
Before long, it becomes clear that what we’re watching isn’t entirely objective reality. When Abe goes to meet Miranda for their first date, he is intercepted by his co-worker, Marie, who warns him, “she’s too good for you. You haven’t got a shot.” We know this is fantasy for a couple of reasons. For one, the whole thing is more than a little surreal. Out of nowhere, she emerges, running towards Abe’s car. Two, after she delivers her lines, we abruptly cut to Abe jolting to his senses implying he was awoken from a dream. And three, it is later revealed that Miranda lives a few hour’s drive away, making Marie’s arrival on foot improbable, to say the least.
Marie shows up numerous times in Abe’s dreams. There are times when it appears that Abe privately lusts after her. In several dreams, she is depicted as sophisticated and wealthy, with a modern, tastefully decorated, massive home. This is someone who would be able to take care of him. Oftentimes she also serves as a purveyor of harsh truths, or, at least the harsh truths as Abe sees them. There are elements of truth to what she says, but even if Abe is in dire need of some tough love, sometimes the dreams reflect nothing more than his own misguided beliefs and insecurities. For instance, when Marie says “she’s too good for you,” that’s clearly what Abe fears deep down, but there’s no real reason for him to feel this way. He knows nothing about Miranda. All that he, and we, know about her so far is she is exceptionally passive and cold. The only aspect to Miranda that’s especially appealing is her looks.
It is in Abe’s courtship and eventual engagement to Miranda that the film really bares its satirical teeth. It’s in part a response to the Apatow-style “schlub makes good” romantic comedy popular at the time of its release, but it also critiques an older story: an innocent, misunderstood man meets a beautiful woman who is enthralled to be pursued by a “nice guy” for once, and who saves her from all the “jerks” out there. They live happily ever after. The “love story” here brutally deconstructs that trope.
Miranda is characterized by passivity above all else. From the first shot, we can see in her eyes that she’s given up (kudos to Selma Blair for nailing that dead, used-up expression). Her engagement to Abe is just an extension of that, by her own admission. She is settling, pure and simple. When they kiss for the first time, she says, “that wasn’t horrible.” Crucially, this doesn’t seem to bother Abe at all. He doesn’t mind that she is settling for him, or that she isn’t getting exactly what she wants. He’s getting what he wants.
Like Abe’s mother, she never challenges him even when he is at his most obnoxious. When they meet up for the first time after the wedding, he calls astrology “total bullshit” but goes on to discuss the importance of dates and numbers. The hypocrisy of this goes unremarked upon. Later on, Abe gleefully and childishly boasts that he is taller than his brother and that he (the brother) is “super insecure about it.” Miranda, who can probably see through Abe’s clear self-delusion, merely gives him her now familiar polite smile
But for all Abe’s awfulness, Miranda really isn’t “too good” for him. In fact, their relationship is pretty bad for the both of them. The idea that he “loves” her is rather insane. By the end of the film, they still barely know one another and the two share no spark or chemistry whatsoever. Abe idealizes Miranda. Because she’s beautiful, she is right for him. Nothing else matters. In one scene, when she sits down with him to tell him something she feels guilty about, he tellingly says, “whatever it is, it’s okay.”
Make no mistake, Abe feels entitled to a beautiful woman, though it’s not something he openly says. One problem with the aforementioned schlub makes good story being satirized here is that it trains men to feel this entitlement. On his first date with Miranda, Abe says, “sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong time, like if I was born a hundred years ago I’d probably already be married with…five kids.” He longs for a time before modern dating, when a man like himself would not be expected to demonstrate value in order to find a mate. And in a dream echoing his aforementioned interaction with the customer service guy at Toys ‘R’ Us, he says, “I paid for a fiancé and I want her now!”
Later in the film, Abe tells Miranda, “You know how people say they want their dreams to come true? Well I don’t. I prefer reality.” His dreams are where he is confronted with his own faults. His reality is simple and undemanding. The dreams (particularly the ones towards the end of the film) reveal that, deep down, Abe is more self-aware than he let’s on, but chooses to delude himself to avoid taking responsibility for himself. Abe knows that he is privileged, that he has lived a fortunate, easy life, and that he has only himself to blame for his mediocrity. But if Abe were to change, if he were to make the effort to actually improve himself, it would mean openly acknowledging this. A change in his life would be an admission that there was something wrong with his old ways and that that wrongness was inside him. He’s been telling himself the story of his own victimhood his entire life. A happy ending would give the lie to that story.
Georgina Wills: My word, what a bleak film. Todd Solondz kept me at arms length throughout its entirety with so few characters to like and such a displeasing and uncomfortable mise-en-scene.
Anthony certainly has a point when he says the opening anti meet cute between the characters Abe and Miranda sets the tone of Dark Horse perfectly. But I think that the wedding setting and the film’s overall aesthetic hold a darker element that work towards portraying these characters. The wedding setting these characters are positioned in is both overbearing and overdone. Everything appears tacky, excessive and the wedding guests exaggerated dancing all contributes to the sad and awkward dialogue that takes place between Abe and Miranda.
This is further reinforced through the bursts of overly produced and feel good clichéd pop music played by Abe that is just as discomforting to listen to than watching his obnoxious, over the top character. I did chuckle at the glitzy opening credit text and the droll positioning of a Les Miserables poster in frame at one point. However, not even its attempted satire could really persuade me to be empathetic towards Abe’s self-loathing, self-induced, pathetic character. The vibrant colouring of the film was also bitterly sweet in accentuating his childishness.
Dark Horse certainly takes on our all too familiar Gen Y entitlement argument, but there was nothing about Abe’s actions, particularly his cruelty to his kind parents that I could relate to or feel any empathy towards. Regardless of this, even though Abe never redeems himself and the film certainly doesn’t warrant a happy ending, I never really cared enough to consider redeeming Abe for anything. Additionally, I found this film to be mostly tiring, methodical and conventionally narrative safe in conveying its heavily misanthropic ideas. That said, I’m still curious to see life’s anguishes played out by a female 7th grader in Solondz’s film Welcome to the Dollhouse.
Dominic Barlow: Wow, Anthony. What a fun introduction to Solondz this was! By all means, let the man be so blackly cynical – if it means he makes a film this joyfully riveting, than it’s justified completely. Honestly, this was a pleasure to watch – funny, garish, and admirably sure-footed, right through every cocky, spluttering line-read from its tragic dork of a lead.
It’s also a marvel to meet a director with such a killer cast and crew behind him. Jordan Gelber is brilliant, of course, since he plays the lead role like an arrogant ten year-old kid, and is a perfect foil for the adults he bumps past throughout his crude awakening. I didn’t even see the cast list before viewing, so watching Walken, Farrow, Blair, and even the Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi drop in and fit their supporting roles like gloves was a series of wonderful surprises. I love the work by costume designing team Kurt and Bart, not just for picking such luridly awful T-shirts and socks-and-sandal combos for Gelber to flounce about in, but for echoing the emotional guises and insecurities emanating from Solondz’s script. Their hiring is especially cunning given that they’ve dressed many of the popstars that the film riffs on in its tacky pop music (courtesy of music supervisor Michael Hill), which Anthony made good note of in his essay. Alex DiGerlando, production designer on this and True Detective, also deserves much credit for crafting dreamscapes and prisons out of the sights of suburban New York, and for turning Abe’s room into the perfect man cave. Cinematographer Andrij Parkeh shoots it all in a classy way that leaves our antihero’s insecurities all the more pronounced.
Rotten Tomatoes gives an unusually incisive concensus by saying it preaches to the cynical-converted1. Solondz would probably make no bones about that, since he has gone on record saying that he wanted to test the limits of audience sympathy,2 by making a film with a deliberately unpleasant character and then exploring his vulnerabilities. That experimental aspect is a riot by itself, but I think he has also crafted a savage, playful counterpoint to every indie film about privileged suburbanites finding themselves. What the Zach Braffs of the world might see as concerning angst is here nothing but a bratty tantrum, bellowed from the mouth of a man-child who wants to get older and not wiser. And yet, it’s less misanthropic and reactionary than that might suggest. As Anthony’s numerous examples prove, it takes real curiosity in how this arrested development transpired, and never bows to conventional demand for a loveable hero to invest in. With that well noted, it’s a pleasureable pill to take.
Lidiya Josifova: This was my first foray into the filmography of Solondz, and it was a bit of a rollercoaster. My experience spanned a whole range of reactions – fascination, confusion, irritation. If anything, there’s something to be said about a director managing to elicit an array of emotions like that. There are definitely things that Solondz does right in this film, not least of all withholding a typical, saccharine ‘happy ending’ from us. I agree with Anthony: we’ve seen more than enough of those redemption-arc stories. In fact, his unflinching examination of protagonist Abe is one of the things I came to most appreciate by the end of the film – he’s an unpleasant person, and few of his moments are commendable. As a character study, it’s certainly a warts-and-all account, and there’s humour to be had. As Anthony says, the film does an appreciable job of highlighting his toxic thought processes with scenes like the imagined second Toys ‘R’ Us sequence. Nevertheless, I found myself more irritated than amused or empathetic. This is probably where my attention tended to wander at points. Having realised very early on in the film what a man-child he is, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with that knowledge – the rest of the film often felt like more of an extrapolation on the same theme.
When Solondz opts for visual humour instead, he still manages to speak volumes and I derived a lot of enjoyment from that. Subtler moments, like the wedding guests’ dancing reflected in the mirror behind Abe and Miranda in the opening sequence, is a great use of mise-en-scène. Other aspects like the film’s repetitive shots, unusual editing (the abrupt cut of pop music in Abe’s car, poking fun at Hollywood Continuity), and the surrealism of the narrative are also appreciable. In particular, that last point of surrealism, which Anthony duly makes note of, is noteworthy. That is where Solondz finds his gold in picking apart his protagonist’s personality. It’s not accompanied by any customary signposts of dream sequences or those outside reality – no fluttering wind-chime sound effects, etc. – and I found that particularly interesting as a stylistic choice to not reveal from the outset. Truth be told, I’m not sure Dark Horse is exactly the dark horse we’re seeking. I rest undecided; the film as imperative viewing hasn’t entirely struck me as the case. I will be seeking out more of Solondz’s work, though.
Brad Mariano: I had already seen the feel-good comedy of the 1990s, Happiness, as my primer to Todd Solondz so I was a little bit prepared. In fact, this film seems almost restrained in terms of what we’re offered – it’s a film that I’m not sure how successful it is in many respects; most characters outside Abe don’t seem particularly well-formed, and while this is arguably part of the film settling into the perspective of Abe’s worldview, there are elements that feel insubstantial. Particularly underused is Christopher Walken, a lifeless presence in a role ostensibly important to the main narrative; the depth of that character we’re supposed to realise at the end doesn’t quite resonate. In any case, having the best character actor of the last thirty years in a Solondz film had me pretty excited and feels like a missed opportunity – Farrow is slightly better however. Also, for an auteur as singular as Solondz there are huge parts of the film that feel really familiar, somewhere in between Punch-Drunk Love and Step Brothers (his doctor brother seems like a poor man’s Adam Scott from the latter). But with a tone as consistently awkward and depressing as this film, I still ended up liking it. As uncertain and insubstantial as much of the film is, the characterisation of Abe that emerges is really fascinating, and Anthony does a great job outlining what makes the film work. He’s plainly awful in many ways – deluded and arrogant lazy -but it’s hard not to sympathise with him; as the film ends up hypothesising, shit people can’t help the fact that they were born shit. And it’s extreme, but not hyperbolic – the most upsetting element of the film is how much you do identify with Abe, and there were certainly elements that hit home for me. I imagine the same occurred for actor Jordan Gelber as well, enough can’t be said about his performance here.