There is always a moment in a Todd Solondz movie when I have to pause the DVD player and take a breather in another room. In fact, I have never risked watching a Solondz movie in a theatre. It is not that anything particularly upsetting happens in such scenes, although the American art-house filmmaker has made two movies about one pedophile. It is because the humiliation of the characters is so complete that I find it difficult to watch.
In his latest, Dark Horse, a supposed comedy about an overgrown adolescent living off his unsympathetic middle-class parents, the scene where I paused is one in which 35-year-old Abe introduces his dour father and insubstantial mother to his depressive new girlfriend and her family. The women’s parents are so repressed they make their taciturn hosts look positively gregarious, and the excruciatingly forced conversation consists entirely of a discussion about whether they have taken the correct route on the drive to Abe’s parents’ house.
Watching the angry and overweight Abe barge through life blaming others for his own inadequacies and seeking love from the obviously uninterested yet suspiciously compliant Miranda, I am left asking once again whether Solondz is a particularly gimlet-eyed humanist or merely a misanthrope. Is the filmmaker sympathizing with his characters or just mocking them?
Although Solondz is often guilty of shooting capitalist minnows in a cinematic barrel – Dark Horse includes a scene where an unctuous Toys “R” Us clerk explains the store’s returns policy – the evidence of sympathy here is actually rather heartening. Abe, played with a perfect mix of bravado, anger and fatal softness by Jordan Gelber, is always reactive and misguided as he rails against his job at his father’s real estate company or proposes precipitously to Miranda. Her listlessness, meanwhile, is rather overplayed by Selma Blair.
And yet, as the film progresses, we do begin to feel for Abe, whose life is never going to deliver, and root for him as he punches out Miranda’s overly friendly ex-boyfriend. Fantasy and dream sequences – his family members lecture him, Miranda’s ex shows up in Toys “R” Us, his father’s motherly secretary turns into a sexual cougar – reinforce our identification with his painful perspective.
The film’s title is, of course, ironic: Abe will only ever fulfill low expectations rather than defy them to win the race. Solondz refuses to offer his characters or audience any of the standard comforts – romance, victory, friendship, acceptance – that are intergral to most indie films, let alone Hollywood ones.
In the end, what makes Dark Horse interesting is not its brutal honesty about its characters, with particularly fine performances from Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow as Abe’s parents, but rather Solondz’s way of dangling narrative hooks only to withdraw them. We are offered not merely the improbable romance with Miranda (who eventually reveals why she might be interested in someone with whom she has nothing in common), but also an unlikely friendship, a car accident, a coma and a pregnancy. Each time, Solondz quickly tosses the obvious resolution away.
This is admirable, but it backs the director into a corner without an ending and, without spoiling it, the solution he picks departs from Abe’s point of view, and begins belatedly to show scenes for which the protagonist himself cannot be present. The plot’s problem is insoluble: There is no honest ending for Abe other than a completely undramatic continuation of the trapped life he has lived so far. So we get narrative disjunction and a limp conclusion instead of the brilliant reversal of formula that was promised.
Still, you have to admire the filmmaker for what he has achieved thus far in Dark Horse, and mourn Abe’s premature departure from the action. And that’s humanism, of a sort.