Wander Darkly

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/16/21 10:22:20

"A dark and intriguing trip."
5 stars (Awesome)

The drifting, emotionally allusive 'Wander Darkly' is for sure the work of a woman (writer/director Tara Miele).

It feels its way through a difficult, nonlinear narrative having to do with life after a car accident for young couple Adrienne (Sienna Miller) and Matteo (Diego Luna), whose relationship had gotten brittle with mistrust and miscommunication even before the event that wrenched them apart. But are they really apart? At one point, a hollow-feeling Adrienne is watching Night of the Living Dead; she notes that she now identifies with the zombies. A more germane black-and-white horror film in the public domain for Adrienne to watch might be Carnival of Souls. I’d better leave it at that.

Then again, anyone who watches Wander Darkly in a too-literal frame of mind is guaranteed to be disappointed. It’s a tone poem about how time plays tricks on us after trauma — how the past floods in and seems as horribly vivid as the present, while the present drifts off on quiet ripples of dissociation or depression. Adrienne believes she is dead, a ghost cursed to hover around lives she once touched — Matteo, their baby. Once or twice, Tara Miele finds a spooky note in this, but mainly it seems intended as a metaphor for disordered consciousness (which can be spooky enough). Is there something supernatural going on? Maybe, maybe not; depends on one’s personal set of associations. I wouldn’t file it under horror or even fantasy — maybe phenomenological romance.

It’s refreshing that neither Adrienne nor Matteo is perfect, nor is their bond. They have plenty of reasons to doubt themselves and each other, mostly having nothing to do with each other. Diego Luna is soulful and sharp — he’s always struck me as what might happen if Edward Norton wandered into an Alfonso Cuarón film and couldn’t get out. So it’s hard to buy him as the Lothario the movie wants us, at times, to suspect him of being. As the internet might put it: get you a partner who looks at you the way Diego Luna looks at the one he loves. But it’s really Adrienne’s story, and Sienna Miller pulls us into her warring emotions as Adrienne rocks back and forth through her life, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five. The trope of reality being agonizing enough that we have to look at it sidewise, piecemeal, is durable enough to support many kinds of stories.

It’s a very hard balancing act Miller has to do, but largely she pulls it off, without showboating or showstopping. Adrienne doesn’t have any big moments; her pain spreads wide and hurts deep, like a bad bruise. She could be actually dead, which would be the least interesting take on the story. Or she could be rattled, relating to life as though she’d left it — in the early going, before we’ve grasped that this isn’t going to be that kind of movie, we may predict that Adrienne did technically die but came back, and that her fractured tour of her life is what happens to the mind after a near-death experience. But no, all of that is simply too left-brain. Best to sit back, breathe, and say “She had a trauma, and this is how she processes it.” Revelation will arrive eventually, as it must.

I try not to think in terms of gender essentialism, but Wander Darkly feels thoroughly female to me. I don’t know that even the most sensitive male could devise the scene where Adrienne imagines her baby as a teenage girl crying as she reads her mother’s bitter journals, or the one where Adrienne picks out which dress she wants to be buried in. And if he had thought of them, could he have written them so painfully, leaving room for the actress to add her own pain? Some art is straight-up Male or Female, and that’s fine (and some isn’t). The movie may stand alongside films like Ghost and Truly, Madly, Deeply, though those two were, alas, penned by males.

Here is a movie that feels specifically tied to a woman’s ruminations on grief and guilt. It moves past revelation to resolution, and becomes rather touching along the way.

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