Actor Thomas Jane’s directorial debut, Dark Country, comes across as a modestly sketched episode of The Twilight Zone with its visual ambition peddle pushed all the way to the floor. A brooding, passably eerie two-hander whose early woozy, pop-art hold unravels considerably in its final half, the movie will win over a handful of fans of The X-Files, as well as generally satisfy those that already appreciate Jane’s squinty on-screen charms.
Fresh off a quickie Las Vegas wedding, two honeymooning near-strangers, Dick and Gina (Jane and Lauren German, one of Hostel: Part II‘s wayward party girls), pick up a mysterious car crash survivor while trekking through the Southwestern desert in the middle of the night. But their decision to save the man soon becomes increasingly regrettable when he tries to assault Dick, and forces them to take drastic action in order to save themselves. The fact that the stranger possibly seems to know a little something about each of them stokes the fires of paranoia in both Dick and Gina, and a blur of paranormal chaos ensues, ultimately leading to the entrance of a local police officer (Ron Perlman) who seems to have his own doubts about the story he’s being peddled.
Written by Tab Murphy — who took a story credit on the Oscar-nominated Gorillas of the Mist, but whose output has heretofore consisted chiefly of animated fare like Tarzan, Brother Bear, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and The Hunchback of Notre Dame — the movie starts off like a companion piece to Red Rock West, with gravelly voiceover narration from Jane’s character, heavily processed, shadow-saturated shots and stock-genre details (a vending machine that simply reads “Raw Cola”) that give the film a feeling of something unrooted in any specific time period. As the newlyweds awaken from their stupor and get to better know each other as they hit the open road, Jane pushes the envelope further — there’s a scene in which Dick finger-blasts Gina to the strains of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony while pushing 100 miles per hour on an open blacktop — making clear that in his mind, at least, this story is something of an allegory, about fate and/or lost identity.
Cinematographer Geoff Boyle, working with Jane, shoots the shit out of the movie, after seemingly constructing a visual scheme that’s equal parts noir homage and low-budget Sin City riff. Dutch angles, processed rear-view projection, looming close-ups and obstructed compositions abound, and if it only ends up working in the truest sense of the phrase about half the time, you at least appreciate the ambition with which this material was approached. The woozy hold of the movie’s first half soon wanes, though, as Dick’s investigative quest for clarity doesn’t hold sway quite like the filmmakers hope and believe. It doesn’t help, either, that Jane abandons the arms-length circumspectness of the movie (and his performance) for naturalistic hyper-emoting. Sure, Gina is Dick’s wife and what not, but they haven’t really known each other that long, so there’s no reason to go all, “Stella!” on things.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case with carved-out spindles under the main disc tray, in an effort to use less plastic, Dark Country comes to DVD presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, with an English language 5.1 Dolby digital audio track and optional English and French subtitles. Special features consist of a brief making-of featurette, and a feature-length audio commentary track with Jane, Murphy and producer Patrick Aiello. In the latter, Murphy talks about the short story that was the genesis of the idea for the script, and Jane and Aiello address some of the hurdles of the movie’s nighttime shoot in New Mexico, as well as the happy coincidence of a dying moth that obliged a shot Jane had storyboarded but been unable to adequately plan. In more elliptical fashion, Aiello and Jane also talk about post-production bad luck and delays, from a fire that wiped out a hard drive on which editorial material was stored to a switch from Avid to Final Cut Pro, and bringing in a new editor. All in all, Jane pegs the post-production at around 18 months — an incredibly long time for a film of this nature. To purchase the movie via Amazon, click here. C (Movie) C+ (Disc)