Written and Directed by: Mickey Keating
Starring: Lauren Ashley Carter, Sean Young, and Brian Morvant
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"I don't think you realize what a godsend you are."
You have to admire the sheer audacity of a movie like Darling. Writer/director Mickey Keating is hardly subtle about his main influence—it’s impossible to watch a black-and-white movie about a young, lonely girl losing her mind in a cramped space and not think of Polanski—and yet the film is a complete triumph, if not the announcement of a major talent’s arrival. At a certain point, you’re not even aware of the obvious riffing going on, as Darling is a singular experience, one that leaves you shaken despite its vague familiarity. It’s a testament to the maxim that talent will always command attention no matter what.
What’s even more staggering is the effortless minimalism on display. Lauren Ashley Carter is the titular Darling, a twentysomething New York City girl charged with a last-minute caretaking gig for Madame (Sean Young), the house’s enigmatic owner who can’t help but hint at the place’s cryptically sordid past. It’s scared off other potential house-sitters, but Darling is hardly fazed—at least until the cavernous place begins to swallow her with its eerie stillness. Strange noises begin to rattle her, while a mysterious locked door beckons to her, threatening to unravel her fragile mind. Even seemingly innocuous encounters with strangers on the street seem to unlock some hidden trauma that’s been waiting to lash out in the most violent fashion imaginable.
On top of the obvious Repulsion homage and all the psychosexual intrigue that entails, Darling also conjures up the Satanic panic of Rosemary’s Baby, or, to make a more recent (and maybe even more obvious) comparison, House of the Devil. But unlike Ti West’s film (which I do love, but for different reasons), this one really doesn’t fuck around. At 78 minutes long, Darling is a masterclass in precision and economy; it’s a film with a director who knows to dwell just enough on the lonely, disquieting setup before finally unleashing the more overt, unsettling shocks. Darling is a movie that’s relentlessly uneasy from the start—unlike other, similar movies, there’s no stretch that feels relatively safe.
Instead, this is a perpetually off-center experience, if not an altogether elusive, slippery one. Keating plays coy with an elliptical, subjective style that seemingly couches the film from Darling’s point of view: like her, we can’t glimpse what rests beyond the door, nor can we reckon with her increasingly fractured perception and memories. Random, subliminal flashes make for both jarring jolts and create the sensation of a mind slipping away. Nothing can stop it—more than anything, there’s a palpable sense of helplessness as we watch Darling’s inevitable slip into madness. It’s like watching someone fall off of a cliff in slow motion—you see it happening, and there’s no stopping it.
To say we “watch” it happen is appropriate. Even though Darling’s psychosis occasionally manifests itself in Keating’s direction, the film is still largely pitched at a remove. Patient, static shots (unless I’m mistaken, there’s no camera movement at all) allow viewers to hover about Darling, resulting in a voyeuristic sensation, as if we’ll never truly grasp the events that are consuming her. Keating’s approach is unnervingly clinical in this regard, driven by a sense of objective detachment, as if to further emphasize the inevitability of this descent.
Darling becomes akin to the butterflies that adorn Madame's wall: a subject to be analyzed and picked apart by a camera that grows increasingly indifferent to the horrors that unfold. This is a cold, almost disconnected film that’s primarily invested in alienation—if it asks you to identify with its title character in any way, it’s in this refusal to offer any sense of comfort. Just as Darling finds herself bewildered and suffocated by this strange house, so too does the audience find itself puzzled by a film that’s more concerned with raising questions than it is providing answers.
The most obviously bewildering piece of the puzzle here is Darling herself. Lauren Ashley Carter magnificently—and immediately—crafts her as some kind of mesmerising enigma. Where the typical dynamic here would pit innocent blank slate Darling against obviously sinister forces, Carter’s performance cleverly muddies the water—you sense that there’s something just off about her even before audiences are given ample reason to doubt her sanity. The hesitation behind her eyes is a noticeable tell: she seems to be spooked by something besides the house, as if she’s hoarding her own secrets. Caught in between is an audience that isn’t sure to fear her or fear for her, at least until she reveals the horrific depths of her madness. Everything before this almost feels like an act, or at the very least a shaky attempt to conceal her true nature before she finally loses herself in a moment of violence and ecstasy. It’s telling that she feels most authentic whenever she’s bathed in blood.
And yet, Darling still isn’t the sort of film that lets the audience off the hook even after its title character commits awful acts of violence. Some measure of sympathy remains for her, if only because Keating is reluctant to confirm her as the predator or the prey. Perhaps she’s both since something sinister does lurk in the house, acting as a catalyst for her psychosis to manifest itself. I love that Keating is unwilling to compromise in this regard: the only thing for sure about Darling is that nothing’s for sure. It taps into arguably the most universal fear of inexplicability—nothing is more terrifying than the depths of a twisted, broken soul, but what if there’s something even more incomprehensible than that? Darling a rare film whose queasy, unflinching violence is the tip of the iceberg: it’s what goes unseen that truly lingers beyond the sight of severed limbs.
Only Carter's petrified face provides a clue that we’ve glimpsed something that must remain incomprehensible—ultimately, this film reminds you less of Repulsion and instead offers a glimpse of what it might look like if Fulci ever did a Polanski riff, which is something I never knew I absolutely needed until now.
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