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DIRECTED BY: Philip Ridley
FEATURING: Brendan Fraser, 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.
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.)