Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Liam Gavin
Writer: Liam Gavin
Producer: David Collins, Tim Dennison, Cormac Fox
Stars: Steve Oram, Catherine Walker, Susan Loughnane, Mark Huberman
A desperate mother and a troubled occultist sequester themselves for a months-long ritual to make a supernatural connection.
Losing her seven-year-old son Jack put Sophia through three years of crushing devastation. That’s only a small taste of pain compared to the excruciating ordeal she is about to commit herself to.
Determined to contact the spiritual plane, Sophia rents a remote country house in Wales and contracts Joseph, a part-time occultist battling his own demons of despair, to guide her through an obscure magic ritual. For six months, maybe more, the duo will be sequestered alone as they undergo intricate rites and physically demanding preparations of purification.
Once begun, they cannot stop for fear of being permanently separated from reality. But should their spell casting succeed, Sophia and Joseph will each have the opportunity to fulfill one innermost desire. Except Sophia has not been entirely upfront about what it is she really wants. And her revelation could affect the invocation’s outcome in ways that will forever alter both participants.
This setup suggests a routine resurrection thriller where opening a doorway invites a demon or “Monkey’s Paw” scenario reinforcing Jud Crandall’s assertion that, “sometimes dead is better.” In actuality, dark drama architects a mood movie with deeper meaning behind its exploration of fractured convictions, broken identities, and coping with regret within an intimacy occupied by only two people.
Steve Oram is excellent as Joseph. Oram has opportunities to provide pinches of the comically constipated intensity that made him so darkly humorous in Ben Wheatley’s “Sightseers” (review here). But the skin he wears here highlights serious struggles with depression, alienation, introspection, and aggression. These compelling complexities terrifically tie Joseph in the center of a tug-o-war rope between enmity and empathy for a character who is quietly fascinating.
It’s not that co-star Catherine Walker isn’t able to meet the same mark. It’s that the script locks Sophia in a laser-focused daze of dourness for nearly the entire duration. Joseph’s personality layers are outwardly evident and easy to unpack. Sophia’s motivations, hidden in part to maintain a piece of the mystery, make her mindset insular and out of arm’s reach. With only two options, keeping connected to characterizations is a hard sell when each is developed in a different direction.
Although “A Dark Song” invites a modicum of thematic interpretation, its character study tells a supernatural story that is far less ambiguous than most atmosphere-first films. Nevertheless, the wick burns as slowly as any arthouse effort whose snail-paced stylings take precedent over nourishing a full-bodied narrative.
When Sophia and Joseph aren’t engaging with each other, much of the movie is a black magic “how to” depicting every detail of the duo’s ongoing attempts to build an otherworldly bridge. Salt circles are poured. Candles are arranged. Incantations are recited. This goes on and on and on again without a significant contribution to the story for well over half of a long 100-minute runtime.
Such scenes are moody, even interesting in and of themselves due to slightly insidious scenery and subtly unsettling music. The issue is that they usually don’t advance any emotional beats, and feeling is the film’s chief stock in trade.
Once Joseph and Sophia’s personal damage is established, and their commitment to a debilitating process is confirmed, “A Dark Song” has permission to move on to other matters. Except it doesn’t. The movie continues to linger within mood it has already made, attempting to echo the arduous journey inside the screen. Staying focused on the interplay becomes a grueling demand for wandering attention spans anxious to advance to new moments, yet told to remain in the same place.
“A Dark Song” shouldn’t be looked at as traditional suspense entertainment. Writer/director Liam Gavin intends his Irish spooker to be consumed as an eerie endurance experience in parallel with the players. Some viewers might be of a mind to take that same measured journey. Though two labored acts of unbalanced value, as well as a slightly silly penultimate sequence for the finale, make it a tougher task to get there.
Review Score: 60