Grief and bereavement are a hard sell for movies; in real life, there’s a moment when you wake up from a dream, confused for a moment about who amongst your loved ones are alive, and who is not. It’s a dream-state, but not a happy one, a sense of purgatory, of confusion, and it’s a world that writer/director Tara Miele bravely sets pretty much her entire movie in here. So, with trigger warnings attached, Wander Darkly arrives as a home streaming option in the UK in a middle of awards season; too dark, perhaps, for voter recognition, but worthy of attention.
In an LA caught in a constant rotation of sunsets and sunrise, two lovers piece their relationship together, over and over again. Adrienne is played by Sienna Miller, Matteo by Diego Luna. They bicker in their car on the way back from a social engagement that doesn’t spark much joy; a car crosses the road in front of them and smashes directly into them. Adrienne wakes up; is she alive or dead? Matteo seems to be still with her; is he alive, or is he just a memory, jumbled up with the past? Adrienne’s mind moves backwards and forwards through real and imagined events, eventually settling on a truth that’s hard to accept. This film, if it’s not immediately obvious from the synopsis, is not for the faint of heart; this is somewhere between Ghost and Jacob’s Ladder, but more blurred, adult and agonising than either.
So why bother putting ourselves through the mill? Let’s start with Miller, an actress once known for the gossip column rather than movies, reinvented. Somehow, something changed; from American Sniper to 2018’s criminally underseen American Woman, Miller has transformed herself from zero to heroine, capable of carrying a film, giving a blazing performance. Luna, from Y tu mama tambien and Rogue One, matches her with his nuanced work at Matteo. It’s a tough gig for the audience, but his relationship with Adrienne is easy to relate to and root for, yet unlikely to lead to a happy ending as the characters navigate the Day of the Dead
Amongst the producer credits, Monica Levinson deserves a spotlight as a top female producer du jour, with Borat 2 and The Trail of the Chicago 7 both reaping large audiences and awards; we’re a long way here from perhaps 2020’s most irrepressible cinematic image of Borat and his daughter’s ‘happy dance’ down the street when they first arrive in America. Wander Darkly uses the kind of intensity that a short film might have, and gambles by extending that intensity to feature length; yes, this could work as a two person play, but you’d lose the intense and disorientating feeling that the elaborate cross-cutting creates. The result will be too much for some, but for those seeking the hard, cutting edge of how immersive cinema can be, Miller and Luna do a sterling job here of reminding us of the fragility of love and life, as we experience it from day to day.
Wander Darkly hits streaming services in the UK from today, March 8th 2021.
Thanks to Lionsgate for access to this title.