I’m not exactly sure which came first of Mickey Keating’s Carnage Park and Darling, but I know they were filmed fairly close together, and are wildly different from each other. It’s fair to speculate that while Keating’s still finding his feet, he has the potential to become a “name” director in a few years.
Darling is just released to Netflix as I write this (July 2016), and is much different in tone and content from Carnage Park, even though they both fall somewhat under the description of psychological horror. While Carnage Park goes for a more standard cat-and-mouse chase structure and skews more to the “thriller” genre, Darling heads straight for horror and is mostly successful, but it’s not without some issues.
Shot in black and white, Darling is the story of a young woman given the caretaker job in a Manhattan brownstone home, and becomes steadily unhinged. The black and white shots of New York City at the start of the movie, and scattered throughout, are magnetic to me. I may have been born and raised in Scotland, but I’ve always considered myself an adopted New Yorker. Even though I live in the US now, and a thousand miles away from NYC, I love everything about the city. That said, it doesn’t take much to onboard me early in a movie if you decide to show the place in a good light, and Keating’s shots are artistically gorgeous. From there, the story launches proper with the perhaps-eponymous “Darling” given the rundown on the job by the building’s owner (Blade Runner’s Sean Young, in a bookending cameo). It’s clear from early scenes that Darling isn’t just the millennial-with-an-attitude that she appears to be in her first scene. Keating paints a picture of someone suffering from some kind of mental illness early on, and the actress in the role, Lauren Ashley Carter (Jug Face) gives a pretty mesmerizing performance from start to finish, even if Keating’s script isn’t as clever as it could be. The setup, after all, isn’t anything new. The premise of someone not dealing from a full deck within an unfamiliar property has been done before – The Shining is the obvious one, but I was more reminded by Roman Polanski’s tour-de-force early 70s movie The Tenant (in which he also starred as the titular character).
Stylistically, I enjoyed a lot of Darling. I’m a sucker for black and white photography, and I have a strong appreciation for one-camera moviemaking. Darling is, in many ways, the kind of movie that a young filmmaker should aspire to make, in terms of capturing the visual language of film. Keating clearly understands this side of things. In Carnage Park, the washed out palette was a nice choice, but his framings were fantastic, given the environment he was shooting in. Darling is very, very different to that movie so it speaks more to Keating’s talent as a filmmaker that his framings are just as terrific here. Every shot is impeccably framed, and the result is a terrific looking movie.
Like Carnage Park, this shooting style is greatly enhanced by a cacophonous score by Giona Ostinelli; its brittle shrieks and horns and heavy, doom-laden complexity is a perfect complement to the more static visuals. Like Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, this is a great example of the power of a more in-your-face, laterally-minded score, instead of a more conventional score that goes hand in hand with the ebb and flow of scenes. I loved this choice of music for this kind of movie.
On the other side of that, though, was a little bit more pretension to the movie than I would have liked (I didn’t have a lot of time for the “chapter” breaks). At times, it almost feels like he’s simply aping French Avant Garde cinema, but mercifully those times are few. The biggest influence I could feel in Darling was Polanksi, actually, one of my all time favourite directors. The movie reminded me a lot of Repulsion, both in terms of content and a little by means of Carter’s portrayal of Darling. It’s not anywhere near as subtle or as sympathetic as Catherine Deneuve’s, but that is the fault of the script, also by Keating. The one major element Darling lacks is an emotional core. Running short, around 75 minutes, there’s very little attempt made here to attempt to humanize Darling. She remains a robotic compendium of paranoid inflections and mildly obsessive behaviours, and that disappointed me more than a little. By the end of the movie, it’s clear that the story is very literal, with elements of misdirection that, upon reflection, seem mostly pointless. I would have preferred to have seen another 15 – 20 minutes of character work – needn’t have been expository or over-revealing, and it could have added another layer to the movie. As it is, there’s a kind of reveal, but it feels contrived. It’s like that moment of explanation for her behavior that I wanted to see, but when it arrived, I was all, “That’s it, huh?” I just wanted a little more meat on that bone, but only got a table scrap. I think an extra quarter hour would really have amplified this movie. Darling is a very decent way to spent 75 minutes of your time, but it could have been better.