A Dark Place: The Voices Low, by David Bax
A Dark Place may be a sleep-inducing title but even its original name, Steel Country, is a sidestep from what it really wants to say. The opening montage of the small, rural Pennsylvanian town where it’s set is dotted with Trump/Pence campaign signs and the juxtaposition of these with the sequence’s culmination—the camera’s discovery of a dead child’s body in a creek—implies what director Simon Fellows associates with MAGAland. The small town where everybody knows everything has proven a fruitful setting for mysteries time and time again but Fellows also sees an insular, almost incestuous incubator for sin and corruption in a place whose denizens imagine themselves to be the vestiges of some older, purer way of life.
Andrew Scott is Donny, a garbage man with what appear to be some mental developmental issues. He has a daughter, Wendy (Christa Beth Campbell), whose mother (Denise Gough) allows Donny basic visitation rights while trying to minimize reminders of his existence and of their one night together. Other than Wendy and his coworker/friend Donna (Bronagh Waugh), Donny doesn’t have much going on in his life. But when that dead boy is discovered and Donny hears his mother, whose house is on his garbage route, imply the death was no accident, Donny becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to destroy this child’s innocence and then his very life.
Scott and Gough are Irish, while Waugh and Fellows hail from the United Kingdom. The actors do solid, consistent American accents but the fact of their nationalities only adds further wrinkles to the curious critiques of present day small town USA in A Dark Place, none of which is inherent in Brendan Higgins’ screenplay. It’s as if they feel they’re getting away with something.
Such thoughts come to me presently in looking back on the film but, in the moment, A Dark Place is too engrossing to spend much time distracted by anything else. What could have been a true disaster of a movie had it followed the Forrest Gump, PI suggestion of its premise is instead an exercise in character-based tension born of dramatic irony. The viewer is likely to put facts in order slightly quicker than Donny is, leaving us time to fear the danger he doesn’t yet realize is coming.
So it’s not just the detective mystery trappings but also the sense of an innocent man getting in irrevocably over his head that make A Dark Place feel like classic film noir. Cinematographer Marcel Zyskind complements that feeling with a high contrast, deep focus look that’s adapted itself to the humid, rusted present day of a former factory town.
A Dark Place is a cracking mystery, yes, but it’s also a deeply aching venture into the undiscovered caverns of a man’s heart, as well as that of the town he lives in. The closer Donny gets to uncovering the truth, when we should be anticipating the satisfaction of narrative resolution, Fellows and Scott instead broadcast a growing sadness. As Donny starts to learns about the hard, short life of the dead boy, we begin to suspect that our downtrodden hero is seeking to fill the hole left by the daughter whom, though still living, he’s already beginning to lose. But then, as he learns even more, we begin to wonder what Donny’s childhood was like and if whatever he’s looking for was lost to him long before he fathered a child of his own. A Dark Place is a compelling neo-noir that thumbs its nose at the new American Right. But, more importantly and more powerfully, it’s an exploration of victimhood and agency.