Now available on DVD
After watching the directorial debut of actor Thomas Jane (The Punisher, The Mist, the new HBO series Hung), I wouldn’t say that he should stick to acting from now on but rather that the next time he directs a film, he should pick a better script. Working with a screenplay by Tab Murphy (best known as the writer of Disney’s Tarzan and The Hunchback of Notre Dame) that would challenge (and not in a good way) the talents of Spielberg or Scorsese, Jane can only do so much to make Dark Country watchable. At first, this looks promising with a noir-ish set-up that introduces us to Dick and Gina, a newly married couple (Jane and Lauren German) coming from their impulsive nuptials (in Vegas, natch) and who are now en route on a dark stretch of desert road to their honeymoon and their new life together. Thanks to the voice-over narration from Jane, we know that Gina will not prove to be a stabilizing influence and that this marriage will surely have an abbreviated lifespan (say it isn’t so!). But as we initially meet them, they’re off as husband and wife to whatever adventures life has in store for them. Too bad that journey will take them deep into (cue Twilight Zone theme)â€¦dark country.
Early on, it’s clear that Jane is bringing a stylized visual approach to his debut film (it was shot for 3-D, in fact, but plans to release it theatrically in that format fell through). As rendered by cinematographer Geoff Boyle (Mutant Chronicles), Dark Country has the look of a film noir crossed with a graphic novel (comic book all-stars Tim Bradstreet and Berni Wrightson contributed design work to the film). All of Dark Country‘s driving scenes feature green screen backgrounds, recalling the rear projection effect that was utilized in TV and film up through the ’60s before being gradually phased out by more sophisticated methods. There’s a deliberately retro vibe to the sight of Jane and German driving against artificial backgrounds that lends Dark Country an almost camp atmosphere, which initially seems intriguing but eventually works against the film.
Dick and Gina’s trip is interrupted when they come across the aftermath of a car crash. The lone occupant of the wrecked car is a bloody mess and even though he and Gina are on their way to a new future, Dick decides that he needs to bring this man to some medical assistance. That’s a nice idea in theory but sometimes things aren’t as easy as they seem. Trying to transport this victim to the nearest hospital – or to any nearby sign of civilization that can offer help – turns out to be the altogether wrong move. Hard as it is to believe, putting a bloodied and wounded man in the back of your car doesn’t always work out.
From his spot in the back seat, this injured passenger (referred to in the credits only as ‘Bloodyface’) is more given to delivering gravelly voiced taunts to Dick and Gina (“You look like a Dickâ€¦”) than he is moaning in agony as you’d expect from someone who looks like Skinless Frank from Hellraiser (1987). Who is this mysterious character that seems to already know Dick and Gina? The answer may surprise you – but then again it probably won’t, and that’s one of the big issues with this film. Maybe if Dark Country had a more gritty, realistic atmosphere, its ending wouldn’t be so easy to anticipate but as is, the slightly surreal vibe that all the green screen work creates immediately prompts the viewer to expect a more fanciful conclusion. I also think it was a mistake to have Bloodyface act so sinister and belligerent towards Dick and Gina. To have a severely injured character behave the way Bloodyface does (or to even be conscious, for that matter) is a clear marker that there’s something unreal happening. Once you have that character talking in the backseat, berating Dick and taunting Gina, the movie can’t help but feel lightweight from that point on. After that, you can no longer buy Dick and Gina’s plight as being a substantial one because we know the filmmakers are waiting to pull the rug out from under them – and us – with a supernatural denouement.
If the same story were told in less time, it might’ve worked better. This is a half-hour or hour-long anthology episode at best, not a feature. Even with a brief 88 minute running time, Dark Country feels like it’s taking excessively long to get to its climax and by the end, what should be an ironic wallop is more of a shoulder shrug.
It doesn’t help that while Jane and German deliver good performances, their characters are underwritten. Rather than coming off as intriguingly enigmatic with their mutual shrouded pasts, they just seem flatly imagined. This marriage that they’ve embarked on is supposed to be the start of a new life for both of them but we don’t know enough about their old lives and what pasts they may be running from to ever care when their new life together gets derailed. And perhaps it’s attributable to the need to stretch the running time but the ongoing squabbling between them and the series of bad choices that they make can’t help but wear thin – especially when many of those choices defy all good sense. Noir tales often depend on their protagonists making bad decisions but here Dick and Gina’s choices don’t seem to come from their inner foibles or weaknesses but rather from a screenwriter who’s making these characters behave deliberately dense.
I don’t doubt that Jane has a better film in him as a director but while the appeal of Dark Country as a first outing is clear â€“ a simple story, limited locations, and a small cast – much like Dick and Gina’s ill-fated marriage, Dark Country is a noble effort that takes too many wrong turns and ends up getting lost. For fans that find themselves jonesing for a Twilight Zone-esque tale or some noir atmosphere, however, your mileage may vary.