Wander Darkly: The Spotty Mind, by David Bax
Sienna Miller has long been underappreciated as an actor. Maybe it’s because of her unfortunate tendency to get stuck in stock concerned wife roles (Foxcatcher, American Sniper) or ill-conceived flops (remember the Alfie remake?). But in more idiosyncratic fare, from The Lost City of Z to Mississippi Grind to High-Rise, she delivers ferocious intelligence and entrancing complexity. Tara Miele’s Wander Darkly gives her a starring role and, for what it’s worth, she acts the hell out of it. It’s just too bad the movie doesn’t deserve her.
Miller’s Adrienne and her husband, Matteo (Diego Luna), are not in a good place. They have a newborn baby Matteo isn’t sure he wanted and they’re about to move into a house they can’t really afford. Even on a rare night out, with Adrienne’s mother (Beth Grant) babysitting, they can’t enjoy themselves, arguing instead about Adrienne’s flirtatious colleague. It’s during this spat, on the drive home, that their car is struck at full speed by a reckless driver. Adrienne appears to have died in the hospital shortly thereafter but she finds herself still hanging around, sleepwalking through a life she is convinced is a death dream (despite her family’s attempts to convince her otherwise) and sometimes disappearing into memories of her marriage, with a version of Matteo who may or may not be a figment of her dying brain accompanying her like one of Dickens’ ghosts.
There’s a lot going on in Wander Darkly but it appears Miele put all her focus into the complicated screenplay and none into the film’s presentation. With its over-lit, wide-angle Steadicam shots and whip pans, the movie comes across as cheap and dated, like an episode of a pre-New Golden Age of Television network drama. Of course, that may be because the basic premise of a woman steadfastly refusing to believe that her own life is real is literally the plot of a season six Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode.
Miele’s writing and her instincts as a filmmaker seems at odds with each other in more ways than one. Adrienne, both as written and as performed, has a sardonic streak. Even amidst the trauma of the accident and the bewilderment of her unclear existential circumstances, she’s not unable to find humor in her own death. When an attractive young woman appears eager to console Matteo, Adrienne remarks, “Let’s let the body cool off, huh?” But there’s no comedy whatsoever in Miele’s restless, self-conscious direction.
It is pretty funny, though, when Adrienne decides to watch Night of the Living Dead because, as a deceased individual herself, she now relates to the zombies. Which brings us to the genre to which Wander Darkly actually does a good job of adapting itself, horror. In her journeys through her post-death life and her past with Matteo, Adrienne is stalked by a dark, unsettling figure, sometimes barely perceptible like the creature in the shadows in Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game.
Scaring us is not Miele’s driving ambition, though. Wander Darkly is a superficial relationship drama lazily gussied up in the form of a clunky metaphysical thriller. It’s like a stage version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind adapted by a teenager.