The title of Darwin refers to the microscopically small Death Valley town whose residents and history are its subjects. It also rather pointedly evokes the father of evolutionary theory. That it’s hard to tell whether Nick Brandestini’s documentary proves or disproves its namesake’s theories about the survival of the fittest is probably to its credit: Depending on how you look at it, Darwin is either an affirmative record of proud outliers getting by on true grit or a grim snapshot of a community on its last, buckling legs.
The correct answer may be that it’s a bit of both. Shot in a probing yet deadpan style that evokes the work of Errol Morris (particularly his career-making 1980s documentary Gates of Heaven), Darwin exudes a certain admiration for the residents of a former mining town that has declined in population from around 35,000 after its inception in the late 19th Century to 35 in 2011; a series of terse intertitles inventory some of the alternately tragic absurd events that led to its current status as a “living ghost town.”
Cut off from the rest of the country by both sheer geography and an enclosed local culture that eschews any sort of governmental or religious authority, Darwin’s inhabitants are all too happy to dish about their way of life – the feeling one gets is that talking about their pasts, no matter how checkered, is a boon because it gives them something to do.
Brandestini, who photographed the film himself, must have started salivating when he realized that this tiny community was somehow home to an incredibly – and borderline impossibly – diverse collection of characters: a wizened ex– prospector who works as an artist; a pot-bellied anarchist who has buried guns out in the desert; a young man in the process of transgendering himself and who is one of the only people in the town under 40; and a married couple who have embraced paganism (“Our God would be Odin,” they explain).
He also couldn’t have hoped for better or more suggestively death-tinged revelations than the one-two punch that this particular patch of no man’s land is located adjacent to both a top-secret weapons-testing facility and the Barker Ranch, where Charles Manson was captured (and allegedly buried some bodies, to boot).
None of this should give the impression that Darwin is a documentary that simply could have made itself. Brandestini, whose previous credits include a movie about Alien designer H.R. Giger, obviously won the trust of his subjects and for the most part he doesn’t abuse it (there’s less smirking than in Morris’s more recent work). He also makes an effort to make the film visually interesting, contriving striking camera set-ups that immediately familiarize us with the locations geography (not that it’s hard to find one’s way around the place). Like the place it describes, Darwin is ultimately fairly self-contained in its effects.
Despite the microcosmic quality of the town and references to economic strife and the 2008 election of Barack Obama, it doesn’t quite coalesce into the larger statement about American stubbornness and tenacity it hints at being. It’s a modest work about a minor place – and no less impressive for that.