As its title suggests, A Dark Place is a portrait of moral rot in the American heartland (its original title, Steel Country, was just as direct, albeit in a different way). The film is set somewhere in rural Pennsylvania in a small town whose industrial past is reflected in the decaying remains of enormous brick factories on the edge of town and whose struggling identity is reflected in the largely empty streets and numerous Trump/Pence "Make America Great" campaign signs in heavily shadowed front yards and the dusty windows of empty buildings. The camera often looks down on the town's heavily forested surroundings from high above, suggesting a primal wilderness that is closing in on the scattered residents, so it is not surprising in the least that the film's victim, a young boy, is found drowned in a creek.
That boy's death becomes an almost immediate obsession of the film's protagonist, a garbage truck driver named Donny Devlin (Andrew Scott). Although it is never explicitly mentioned, Donny appears to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, as his interactions with other people are often odd and uncomfortable and he has a hard time letting go of small details. One of those small details is the fact that the boy who drowned used to wave at him every day from his bedroom window, a simple act of human kindness and connection that Donny gets from virtually no one else save his optimistic wheelchair-bound mother (Sandra Ellis Lafferty), with whom he lives, and his co-worker, Donna (Bronagh Waugh). Everyone else treats him like a familiar nuisance they'd rather cross the street to avoid, which means that Donny lives much of his life in isolation. He has an 11-year-old daughter named Wendy (Christa Beth Campbell), who lives with her mother, Linda (Denise Gough). Linda wants nothing to do with Donny; they had a drunken one-night stand, but Donny still holds out hope that they will marry someday and raise Wendy together.
When Donny hears about the young boy's disappearance and then the discovery of his body, he becomes fixated on finding out what happened. A short, tear-choked statement from the boy's mother that he didn't wander off and accidentally drown, as all the official reports indicate, becomes one of those details that Donny just can't let go, and soon he is playing amateur sleuth, much to the consternation of the local police, particularly the gruff Sheriff Mooney (Michael Rose), and the various locals he starts questioning. The film develops a fascinating enigma at its narrative core, as Donny's single-minded fixation is both an uncomfortable indication of his psychological and emotional state and an inspiring reminder of the importance of "the least of these" (the performance by Andrew Scott, best known as the villainous Moriarty on the BBC's Sherlock television series, is crucial here, as he creates a compelling character whose difference from those around him puts him a unique position to do what others can't-or won't). Although Donny didn't know the boy, he clearly identifies with him as a victim and recognizes that the willingness of virtually everyone to write off his death as an accident is testament to the way so many people are figuratively and literally "thrown away."
And that is where A Dark Place is at its best. The screenplay by newcomer Brendan Higgins and the direction by Simon Fellows (Malice in Wonderland) contribute a strong sense of time and place that feeds the underlying mystery and turns it into something more than a simple whodunit (the cinematography is by regular Michael Winterbottom collaborator Marcel Zyskind). Filtering the action through Donny's perspective also gives what could have been an overly familiar plot a unique angle, as we sense that his outsider status in the very place where he has always lived is precisely what fuels his desire to solve a mystery that no one else thinks is a mystery. The fact that he uncovers dark secrets involving a powerful and well-respected figure of the community reveals just how easily evil can flourish not in the shadows, but right under our noses.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (3)
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