Tuesday, 01 May 2012
DARK HORSE is the latest feature by acclaimed American director Todd Solondz. As with his previous films, it highlights his skill at navigating a unique course through the representation of the American family. In doing so, he cements his position as one of contemporary cinema’s finest satirists.
International success came early for Solondz with his sophomore feature Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995). It premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, picking up the C.I.C.A.E. award, followed by further success at the Independent Spirit Awards, where its star Heather Matarazzo won the Best Debut Performance award. A brilliant and blackly comic account of an awkward youth’s uneasy relationship with her family (the model of Rockwellian bliss, tempered by Dawn Weiner’s brooding teen angst), it highlighted the director’s skill with actors and also exhibited his dark, unsettling sense of humour.
Any doubts about Solondz’s talent were dispelled by Happiness (1998), which now ranks as one of the key works of 1990s American cinema. If his previous film was a chamber piece, analysing dysfunction within one small family, Happiness is a more ambitious venture, offering up a tapestry of lives and loves across three generations. The story of three sisters and the lovers, husbands, children and parents who populate their lives, it is a coruscating account of the lies we tell each other – and ourselves – in order to get through our lives. Again, the director elicits stunning performances from his cast, most notably Dylan Baker, whose veneer of respectability as a loving father and family man is soon erased, revealing a paedophile who abuses his son’s friend. The most controversial narrative thread in the film, it also shows Solondz at the height of his powers; the story was the first in mainstream cinema to face up to paedophilia without descending into hysteria, suggesting that outrage leads nowhere without understanding.
Storytelling (2001) saw Solondz depart from a conventional narrative arc and towards a more challenging dramatic structure. It presents two stories – ‘Fiction’ and ‘Non-Fiction’ – which, once again, attack the vagaries of middle-class suburban life, but also comment on the director’s own work and his penchant for taboo-breaking. It even features an hilarious riposte to American Beauty director Sam Mendes’ attack on Happiness (a sequence few will fail to pick up on). Some critics railed against Storytelling, viewing it as little more than another attempt at shocking our sensibilities. But in the decade since it was made, Storytelling is rightly acknowledged as a key work in understanding Solondz’s body of work.
The play with narrative structure continued with Palindromes (2004), a brutal assault on the arguments for and against abortion, in which the central character, Aviva, is played by various actors of different age, gender and ethnicity. What shocked many was Solondz’s levelling of the playing field – attacking liberal attitudes with as much venom as the more conventionally ridiculed conservative viewpoint. As with Tony Kaye’s exhaustive documentary on the subject, Lake of Fire (2006), Solondz’s decision to find fault on both sides of the fence makes for a richer experience and Palindromes deserves to be seen as a major contribution to an incendiary subject.
Life During Wartime (2009) reunited Solondz with many of the characters from Happiness, albeit played by a different cast. A number of situations are familiar (the blistering opening scene from the first film is repeated, to even more cringe-worthy effect, with Shirley Henderson replacing Jane Adams and Michael Kenneth Williams taking over from the suicidal John Lovitz, whose ghostly character is now played by Paul Reubens), but the tone of the film is darker, with the sisters even more distant from each other and the characters search for solace or companionship left foundering.
DARK HORSE premiered at the 2011 Venice Film Festival. It sees the director return to a smaller canvass, as he tells the story of Abe, a balding thirtysomething who avidly collects action figurines and still lives at home with his parents (played by Mia Farrow and a scene-stealing Christopher Walken). Justin Bartha’s central performance recalls Heather Matarazzo’s in Welcome to the Dollhouse – an eternal teenager who has never really grown up. Once again, Solondz is in a playful mood, tempering what could have been a bleak outcome with a seres of narrative twists that are as funny as they are ultimately poignant. And like all of Todd Solondz’s work, DARK HORSE blends detailed characterisation and black humour with a genuine concern for the way we live our lives.
DARK HORSE is released in cinemas on 29th June 2012.