In the movie Precious, a story about a black, overweight, pregnant teenager who is HIV positive, Precious tells her teacher that no one loves her. Her teacher responds that people do love her and Precious, for whom this statement almost seems for worse than anything else that has happened to her, replies, “Please don’t lie to me.” I thought of that scene with I saw the new Todd Solondz film, Dark Horse. Dark Horse is about Abe (Jordan Gelber), a 35 year old underachiever with anger management issues (often in connection with his being homophobic) who lives at home with his parents, an overprotective mother (Mia Farrow) and a disapproving father for whom he barely works (an hysterical Christopher Walken, who just has to stare with those bug eyes of his to get laughs). Abe’s only hope for a romantic future is manic depressive Miranda (Selma Blair) who is unrepentantly honest about telling Abe how unappealing he is to her.
In other words, Abe is a loser. He has no real future. He has no hope. He does not have the capability of changing or taking control of his life. He is both a victim and his own worst enemy. And in dramatizing this quagmire of a life, Solondz gives Abe only one piece of dignity: Solondz doesn’t lie. Abe is a failure, a misfit, a person who has no reason for existence (as one of the characters tells him—“no one needs you”). And there is simply nothing to be done. And from Solondz’ point of view, that’s just the way life is sometimes. For some people, there is just nothing to be done except accept the reality of it.
Dark Horse is not an easy movie to watch, but I found it fascinating in many ways. I should say that I am not the biggest Solondz fan. I find that most of the time all he does is ridicule people, putting them in the most humiliating situations he can, encouraging us to do the one thing he criticizes the world for: laugh at them. Perhaps the difference this time is that by having one central character, rather than an ensemble, Solondz was forced to go beyond his usual S&M approach to characterization and give a more expansive view of his subject.
Solondz’ main way of digging deeper into Abe is by using fantasy sequences where he interacts with variations of the supporting cast. In this way, Abe careens between defending his actions, sometimes convincingly, and brutally facing up to his culpability in the way his life has turned out (the quote above, “no one needs you”, may be have been said by his father’s secretary, who in reality is the only one who truly cares about Abe, but here she is just a projection of how Abe sees himself).
Gelber is a rolly polly Teddy bear of an oversized oompa loompa. He’s good and the sheer energy of his performance really helps carry things along. At the same time, he is also perhaps just a tad too cartoonish, as if he hasn’t quite caught on to the acting style that is necessary to really help create this off kilter Solondz world. The supporting actors (Farrow, Walken and Blair) are better able to navigate this tricky style, fully investing in Solondz’s universe while still keeping it all very real, nightmarishly so at times.
The story is just one step after another toward Abe hitting rock bottom. Normally, when that happens, there’s no place to go but up. But not here. No, here it all ends tragically in more than one way. People are saddened at first by Abe’s departure, but it’s not long before everyone’s life returns to normal proving Abe and Solondz right: no one needed him. Many writers and directors would have softened it all and given Abe a chance. But that would have been the unkindest cut of all, because it wouldn’t have been true. In the end, all Solondz can really do is give Abe the dignity of being honest about it.