It's rare to see a horror movie these days -- any movie, really -- that feels like a perfectly executed vision from top to bottom. Compromise is part of filmmaking, whether it's budgetary or in the interest of commercialism. Sometimes movies get away from their directors, becoming too ambitious or unwieldy. A handful of contemporary filmmakers like Wes Anderson regularly strive for this perfection, but the movies end up feeling too fussy and overly arranged. It's the illusion of perfection for its own sake.
It's possible that compromises were made on writer/director Mickey Keating's latest film Darling, but it sure doesn't feel that way. Every single piece of the movie, from the production design to the photography, the editing to the score (even the marketing, over which I can't imagine Keating had much control but I don't know), feels perfectly in place. This is a movie with a very exact vision, executed exactly; even if it's not to your taste (and it very well might not be), one has to admire how it is 100% the film that it wants to be. It's one of the best horror movies of 2016 and a front runner for one of my favorites overall. I love it.
With only a handful of speaking roles and a running time of just over 75 minutes, there's not much more to the plot of Darling than described. But this isn't a movie about plot. This is a movie about establishing a mood and reflecting a particular psychology. While there are some film critics who will undoubtedly name drop House of the Devil as a point of comparison because both movies feature young women alone in a house, taking their time as she walks around and explores, it's obvious that Keating is much more influenced by Roman Polanski's 1960s efforts like Repulsion and Psycho imitators Homicidal and Strait-Jacket. Everything about the movie's aesthetic, from Mac Fisken's amazing black and white photography to the carefully chosen art direction to Carter's hair and costume design to even the opening and closing credits all invoke a specific kind of '60s psychological horror film, but Keating isn't just doing a stylistic exercise. This is not the Far From Heaven of horror (as though that would be a bad thing), but rather a filmmaker using similar DNA to create something that is his own.
The Woman and Jug Face, but even those turns left me unprepared for her performance in Darling. Like Alex Essoe in Starry Eyes, Carter is asked to build to a kind of fevered hysteria from a place of total deadpan calm; I love the way she modulates between measured blankness wide-eyed madness, like a riff on so many of the "women's pictures" performances of the '40s through the '60s. Any movie constructed of many this shots of Carter's face in closeup is already well worth seeing, but she breaks new ground for herself as a performer in this one. Her enormous eyes, so good at expressing helplessness and uncertainty -- qualities that make her past work so memorable -- are here turned against us. We think she's helpless until we find out otherwise too late.
first review I read by Devin Faraci (then of CHUD.com, now at BirthMoviesDeath), he wrote something that has stuck with me ever since: "Just because a movie has flaws doesn't mean it isn't perfect." It's a sentiment with which I wholly agree, but it's also the kind of thing you either get or you don't. It's an ideal way to articulate my feelings about Darling: it may be flawed, but it's such this perfect little thing that I can't find fault with any of it. The movie is a huge leap forward in Lauren Ashley Carter's career and more promise from Mickey Keating, who demonstrates that he can pay homage to his influences while still creating something that feels personal and original. Darling isn't just another horror movie. It's something thrilling, something special, something that I know is going to last for years. Madness has never looked more beautiful.
Darling is currently available to rent or purchase on iTunes and VOD.