[Review] 'Darkness Falls' Features Radiant Performances Undercut by a Frustrating Script
Some children bond with their fathers over sports games and a nice cold one; others find common ground in shared hobbies such as fishing or camping or reading historical biographies...
...But in the dark and twisted world of director Julien Seri’s Darkness Falls, murder twines two sets of fathers and sons together in a twisted spiral of neglect, trauma, and co-dependency. When one pair shatters the peaceful existence of the other, what follows is a dastardly cat-and-mouse game that will bring them all to their knees as justice gets warped into cold, pure vengeance.
Penned by Giles Daoust (Painkillers), Falls opens with the chilling forced suicide of Elizabeth Anderson (Vahina Giocante). With a gun to her head and a threat to her son’s (Judah Mackey) life, Elizabeth downs half a bottle of sleeping pills before being dragged to the bathtub and having her wrists slit. The attackers, a menacing father-and-son team, Mark (Gary Cole) and Adam (Richard Harmon) Witver, then slink off into the night, a perfectly staged suicide. Little do they know, they’ve been spotted by Elizbaeth’s husband Jeff (Shawn Ashmore), a rising LAPD homicide detective returning home from a night on duty with his partner, Kelly (Daniella Alonso). After the horrifying discovery that awaits him inside, Jeff becomes convinced that Elizabeth did not take her own life and trails every suicide case in Los Angeles for months looking for similarities to his wife’s death. When a woman turns up in the hospital claiming that two men entered her home and tried to get her to kill herself in her bathtub, Jeff becomes determined to hunt down the monsters responsible even if it costs him his career, his sanity, and his relationship with his son.
Darkness Falls (no relation to the 2003 Tooth Fairy film of the same name and listed in some locations by its original title Anderson Falls) is an ordered, precise film. Each scene carefully and meticulously builds on the previous one in a concise, meticulous fashion, similar to a procedural. Its story structure is mirrored by some captivating symmetrical framework, lots of straight lines and flat landscapes that make for some beautiful shots from cinematographer Shan Liljestrand. The viewer sees L.A. through a lens that feels nostalgic, with lots of low, wide shots peppered with the occasional sweeping cityscape shot that makes the whole thing feel very neo-noir. In combination with editor Brody Gusar’s expert use of match cuts throughout, the film is sleek and visually stunning.
Lots of familiar faces populate the screen, including Shawn Ashmore (Frozen, The Following, X-men) in the lead as our star-on-the-rise can-do detective turned desperate vigilante. He matches wits against the father/son serial killing duo of Cole (Veep, Suits, Office Space) and Harmon (The 100, Bates Motel, The Killing), both of whom clearly relish getting to dive deep into their darker sides to bring these two generational psychopaths to life. From the moment we meet them in the opening sequence, we can sense their depravity, their coldness. They present an almost business-like front to their killing, which makes them all the more chilling. The great Lin Shaye also makes a supporting appearance as Jeff’s mother, now primary caretaker of young Judah since his father has neglected his parenting duties in favor of his obsessive pursuit of his wife’s killer. Though she’s not given much to do, Shaye brings her all when she is on screen, drawing the eye towards her in a way only she can manage.
For all the marketability of the cast, however, the film falters somewhat in its rigid structure and the resulting lack of narrative tension. Since the viewer is privy to the truth behind Elizabeth’s death in the very first scene--a scene which is, in itself, filmed with unflinching coldness and is difficult to watch in the best way--the following forty-five minutes of Jeff attempting to convince his colleagues and family that his wife didn’t kill herself comes off as frustrating rather than engaging. We know the truth and we have met the perpetrators, so we know from the get-go that Jeff is right and are left tapping our feet until the remaining characters reach the same conclusion. Beginning the film with Jeff’s discovery of his wife’s body and waiting to unveil the killers may have lent the narrative some spark, but as it stands the structure is less imaginative and more straight-forward.
This can leave the film feeling a bit lackluster in terms of its story and dialogue, which don’t strike any new chords in the wronged-man-takes-matters-into-his-own-hands canon. Though the actors are bringing their characters to life, the characters themselves often feel wooden and stock-ish, speaking lines that are functional but not quite realistic. As the protagonist, Jeff is the most well-developed character and even he lacks a certain depth beyond the general rogue cop cut-out we might see in any generic action film. The script’s reliance on coincidence and questionable logic in Jeff’s deductive methods certainly don’t help as well.
That said, the film is, as mentioned, visually elegant and packed to the gills with a talented cast, including newcomer Mackey as Jeff’s young son Frankie, seeking desperately for a father to anchor him in the wake of his mother’s violent death. The duality of father/son relationships between Mark & Adam and Jeff & Frankie is an intriguing thematic layer; as Jeff struggles to track down this murderous father and his boy, he sacrifices a healthy relationship with his own child when that child needs his father’s support the most. It raises interesting questions of a parent’s culpability on the development of their children and issues of inherited trauma. There is also an interesting misogynistic element as the killers are discovered to be targeting successful women across L.A., but the film doesn’t tug at this angle enough and the two prominent female characters, Jeff’s partner Kelly and mother Angela, exist primarily to validate Jeff when he finds enough evidence to prove his murder theory.
Despite these undercooked elements, the film soars on a technical level and is aided by a committed cast. Well-constructed visuals allow the scenery to envelope the viewer, proving that Seri (Night Fare) knows what he’s doing in the director’s chair and understands how to build a film. Sacha Chaban’s score also hits every beat perfectly and alternatively lifts and lowers the viewer through all the important touchpoints of the story. With the clumsiness of the script aside, Darkness Falls is a beautiful film to watch, an overall satisfying work from a director and a creative team bursting with potential.
Darkness Falls arrives on VOD/Digital June 12th from Vertical Entertainment.
By Craig Ranallo
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