Tag Archives: Viggo Mortensen

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE PASSION OF DARKLY NOON (1995)

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DIRECTED BY: Philip Ridley

FEATURING: , Ashley Judd, Viggo Mortensen

PLOT: Darkly Noon, a young member of a fringe religious sect, barely escapes a massacre and stumbles through the nearby woods to find an isolated woman in an isolated home; his confusion—and rumors that the woman is a witch—causes his fragile mind to unravel.

Still from The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Depending upon how you sliced this one, it could have turned out normal. But Philip Ridley (who both wrote and directed) slices it so that The Passion of Darkly Noon is an ambiguous morality tale, a “Lifetime”-style melodrama, and a hellfire vengeance tract. Seeing a young Viggo Mortensen as a mute carpenter is odd; seeing a young Brendan Fraser as a meek religious zealot is odder; but by the time I saw the magical silver shoe encore at the finale, it was a done deal.

COMMENTS: A word of warning about this review: as I type this, I am not sure where I’m headed. This handily conveys the feelings I had throughout The Passion of Darkly Noon, which defies any easy categorization other than it could only have been made in the 1990s. I grew up with ’90s cinema on rented VHS cassettes, and there is a tone that’s there, if you’re looking for it: the inarticulate subversion of the 1980s morphed into something with a strange sheen that, while smoothing the effect, somehow also made it much more exaggerated. By the time the ’00s rolled around, the modern B- and cult-film visual vocabulary had been sorted out. Philip Ridley’s religious thriller is smooth and polished, but there’s a primordial heart beating savagely through the veneer.

The Passion of Darkly Noon concerns the titular character, “Darkly Noon” (Brendan Fraser), and his spiritual trials after escaping an implied massacre. From the few details provided, his family, and the other members of the sect, had their compound raided by the FBI, National Guard, or some such outfit, with the young man barely escaping, and then nearly being run over. Like many of the film’s lines, its opening one is portentous: “God, help me!,” Darkly mutters, before being carried off to a nearby homestead. What follows, over the course of twelve days, is best captured by Darkly’s confession to his dead parents, “…it’s just that it’s very difficult here. And there are a lot of things I don’t understand.”

This passion play is populated by a small group of allegorical characters. The man who finds Darkly, and who ultimately betrays him, is “Jude” (bringing to mind either Judas, or, also appropriately, the patron saint of hopeless causes). The woman who inadvertently seduces Darkly—and who is dubbed a “witch” by an embittered neighbor—is named “Callie,” traditionally short for “Caroline”, a name meaning free or happy; she represents the unreserved pursuit of joy that Darkly has been denied his entire life.

It wasn’t until the last five minutes that I felt Darkly had a shot at being named one of the weirdest movies of all time. Of course, there was that giant, glittering, red-soled shoe floating incongruously down the river. And there was the up-tempo plague and pestilence preach-ifying undertaker who seemed lifted straight from a 19th-century Revival tent. And there was Viggo Mortensen’s mute carpenter, Callie’s bae, who can’t talk so instead has developed an impressive sleight-of-hand repertoire. A final oddity emerged in the closing credits when I learned that this was a German production. Obviously this is only a minor point, but I wondered: is The Passion of Darkly Noon a European view of American religious fanaticism colliding with rugged individualism, exploding in a Hell-sent electrical fire of extermination?

Arrow Video’s “Special Edition” marks the first time Darkly Noon has graced Blu-ray. It’s a director-approved 2K restoration and it includes a new commentary track from Ridley among its many special features. First-pressing orders come with a commemorative booklet.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… 1990’s The Reflecting Skin [was] the oddest, most obsessive and morbid rural fantasia ever made, at least until The Passion of Darkly Noon…  As in The Reflecting Skin, Ridley keeps tight control[;] it’s never just weirdness for its own sake.”–Rob Gonsalves, EFilmCritic

(This movie was nominated for review by “Mike.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: JAUJA (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Lisandro Alonso

FEATURING: Viilbjørk Malling Agger

PLOT: A Danish surveyor tracks his missing daughter into the wilderness.

Still from Jauja (2104)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This slow-paced movie turns weird by the end, but strangeness doesn’t even put in a cameo appearance until the last twenty minutes.

COMMENTS: While Jauja is set in a specific time and place, no one in the movie ever says what that time and place is; they simply inhabit it as their reality. The film’s “meaning,” similarly, is left vague. An explanation for the film’s title, on the other hand, is given in a text prologue: “Jauja” is a mythical paradise, the equivalent of El Dorado, a place ambitious explorers seek and never find. This, along with the colonial dress and a campfire tale about a soldier who was wandered into the wilderness and went mad, immediately brings to mind similar themes from Aguirre, the Wrath of God; although ultimately Alonso’s movie is more oblique and far more restrained than ‘s Amazonian fever dream classic.

Although never specified, Jauja was actually shot in Argentina, and the film could serve as an advertisement for the Pampas Tourist Board. In its ability to capture the country’s strange landscapes— the standing pools of water flanked by mossy rocks, the fields of boulders, the mighty horizons—the film is an undisputed triumph. Jauja is shot in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio rather than the expected widescreen, with the corners quaintly rounded so that the screen recalls a picture frame. The natural color schemes, particularly the blue midnights and glowing dawns, look brilliantly unreal. Jauja may be too small and peculiar to compete for any major awards, but I doubt we will see superior cinematography in any film this year.

As desolate as Jauja‘s landscapes can be, for most of the running time the film’s plot is even more so. A scene that kicks off the movie’s second act illustrates how unnaturally deliberate the pacing is. Viggo Mortensen’s Danish captain discovers that his teenage daughter is  missing from her tent; instead of immediately rushing off after her, he returns to his own tent and spends several minutes calmly examining his weapons and dressing in his formal military uniform. Although not much time is actually lost in the formal procedure, the scene conveys the exact opposite of urgency. In the movie’s middle section, minute after minute goes by with no words spoken; we simply watch Mortensen stumble across the craggy landscape, growing increasingly weaker. (We also watch him sleep). Eventually, he encounters a shaggy dog and follows it back to a cave where he has a very strange encounter with an old woman (which I will not spoil). Things get even weirder for the ending epilogue, a time-bending journey to another world where the film’s earlier motifs—dogs, a toy solider—are recast in a dreamlike fashion.

Many critics compare Alonso’s latest film to the work of  , for obvious reasons. Although Jauja shares Tarkovsky’s meticulous use of time and strangeness, the Russian master’s films always win out because they end on profound emotional resonances; the Stalker weeping in despair, Kris Kelvin’s decision to play along with Solaris’ delusion. As well-made and thoughtful as it is, Jauga‘s heart is simple—the love of a father for his daughter—and does not approach the emotional intricacies of Tarkovsky. Of course, few do; but Jauja shows you what Tarkovsky may have looked like without his complex understanding of the human soul.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this hallucinatory head-trip Western remains unmistakably Alonso’s film from first frame to last — a metaphysical road movie in which origin and destination are markedly less important than the journey itself…  Alonso saves his most dazzling trick for last: a sudden plunge down a Lynchian rabbit hole that should, by all means, rupture the film’s hypnotizing atmosphere, but instead pulls the viewer in even deeper.“–Scott Foundas, Variety (contemporaneous)

19. THE REFLECTING SKIN (1990)

“You been exploding frogs again?”–Ruth Dove

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Philip Ridley

FEATURING:  Jeremy Cooper, , Lindsay Duncan

PLOT:  Over-imaginative young Seth, growing up in post-World War II rural USA, comes to believe that his widowed neighbor is actually a vampire.  After his father dies in unexpected fashion, the older brother he adores returns from his military tour of the Pacific.  When the brother falls in love with the vampire widow, Seth tries to find a away to save him.

Still from The Reflecting Skin (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was Philip Ridley’s first directorial effort, after breaking into the movie business by writing the script for The Krays. He is also an author of children’s books.
  • A top-billed, pre-fame Viggo Mortensen had just come off playing the role of the cannibal “Tex” in Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III.
  • The production company for the film (Bialystock & Bloom Limited) is jokingly named after Zero Mostel and Gene Hackman’s characters in The Producers.
  • This film, with its hyper-imaginative child protagonist roaming among golden fields of wheat, was an obvious inspiration for Terry Gilliam‘s 2005 film Tideland, which has a slightly different atmosphere but can be seen as a companion piece.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Seth cradling and asking advice from the petrified baby (which he believes to be an angel) that he found hidden in an egg-like box in a hayloft chapel.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Nothing that happens in The Reflecting Skin is literally impossible.  Much of the film’s bizarre effect comes from the characters, especially the weird widow Dolphin who is obsessed with decay and destruction and whose husband hanged himself after a week of marriage. Other characters who form the background of young Seth Dove’s weird world are his perpetually on the verge of tears, creatively abusive mother; a father who reeks of gasoline and hides a secret past; a drunken neighbor obsessed with his own sinful thoughts who dresses like a Puritan; the world’s unluckiest town sheriff, who has lost three body parts to animal attacks and who wears a slice of a colander for an eyepatch; and a hot-rod hearse full of juvenile delinquents that haunts the back roads of this Midwestern farm community.  Altogether, it’s a such an odd concoction of unlikely ingredients, told in a straightforward dramatic manner, that might earn the label “improbable realism” (as well as “Midwestern Gothic”).

Original trailer for The Reflecting Skin

COMMENTS: On it’s release in 1990-1991, The Reflecting Skin was frequently compared to Continue reading 19. THE REFLECTING SKIN (1990)