Arrow Video - Philip Ridley's The Passion Of Darkly Noon (1995) - Reviewed

Philip Ridley deserves a spot as one of the great cult auteurs of the 1990s and 2000s, but he remains far too little-known and little-appreciated outside of certain circles, at least in America. A multimedia artist whose career has spanned visual arts, theater, literature, and film, Ridley has a powerful and unique voice that spans all of those mediums, working with a skewed magical realism to study the dark, tragic, and macabre undercurrents of humanity, and explore themes of marginalized people and repressed desires. Most of the London-based artist's work has been as a playwright: he has written nearly 20 plays which found critical acclaim, controversy, and a strong cult following in the world of British theater, where he is credited as one of the founders of the "in-yer-face" theater movement of the 1990s. He also has written a couple novels, including the outstanding In The Eyes of Mr. Fury: a lyrical, strange, magical-realist coming-of-age tale which I cannot recommend highly enough. And then there is his film career. He has written and directed only three movies, and all three of them have the paradoxical distinction of having passionate cult followings, but very small cult followings because all three films have been largely neglected and ignored by their studios, and left to wallow in obscurity. His first film, 1990's The Reflecting Skin (which we reviewed here), was greeted by critics like Roger Ebert and Mark Kermode as a visionary debut by an important new artist, but it soon went out-of-print, and remained largely unavailable until a 2016 blu-ray/DVD release that took until 2019 to make it to the US. His third film, 2009's Heartless, got a very limited release that was DVD-only in America. And his middle film, 1995's The Passion of Darkly Noon, while readily available on DVD for a while, was trapped in a VHS-era pan-n-scan fullscreen transfer which was highly detrimental to a very deliberately-shot, visually powerful super-widescreen movie. If you didn't see it in theaters, there was no way to see The Passion of Darkly Noon with the careful shot compositions that Ridley intended for the past 25 years. Now at last Arrow Video has rescued this underseen - and never seen properly on home video - film from obscurity, and it truly is like seeing it for the first time. The Passion of Darkly Noon is an unsung art-house masterpiece, at least as good as The Reflecting Skin if not possibly better, and with its 25th anniversary just one month away, it is high time that Ridley's film gets its due credit.

In many ways The Passion of Darkly Noon and The Reflecting Skin work as a pair. Both films have a style that combines magical realism and American Southern Gothic, with both stories being set in the American south - despite the filmmaker being English, and despite neither film actually being shot there (The Reflecting Skin was shot in Canada, The Passion of Darkly Noon in Germany). Both films star Viggo Mortensen and have scores composed by Nick Bicât (with PJ Harvey lending him her vocals for Darkly Noon). Both films explore similar themes of the loss of innocence while growing up, of repression, and of buried familial secrets resurfacing in tragic ways. But the films feel quite different from one another. The Reflecting Skin is an oppressively grim, bleak movie, with its young main character encountering an ever-mounting cavalcade of horrific situations as he learns the hard way that, in the words of the film's tragic female lead, "innocence is hell" and "sometimes terrible things happen quite naturally." The Passion of Darkly Noon doesn't have the same go-for-broke intensity or level of grand guignol; it is intense in an altogether different, more intimate and personal way. It is essentially a three-character film for the vast majority of its running time; an up-close character study that focuses on the pressure-cooker of emotions and repressions that those three people form. It is a slow-burning film, studying the characters and their interpersonal relationships in long takes and intimate scenes, as the emotions become more and more raw.

The titular Darkly Noon (Brendan Fraser, playing against type excellently) is a young-adult man who seems to be on the autism spectrum, who is the sole survivor of an extreme Christian cult that was massacred in a police raid. Wandering through the forest in a daze after escaping the massacre, he is taken in by a free-spirited couple living in the wilderness, Callie and Clay (Ashley Judd and Viggo Mortensen), who represent the complete opposite of the oppressive life that is all he has known. But as he becomes infatuated with Callie and jealous of Clay, his long-repressed and suddenly-awakened sexuality clashes against his uncompromising fire-and-brimstone upbringing, and his sanity starts to crumble. Ridley's study of the interplay between these wounded souls in the wilderness is an intimate portrait playing out against a vast natural backdrop, and that duality of small and grand scale becomes a key element in the film. It is shot in either intense close-ups that peer into the souls of the characters, or extreme wide shots that frame them amid a landscape that dwarfs them completely. 

The wilderness, in which Callie and Clay's house seems to be built at the center, is just as much a character as any of the three, and it is a place both literal and metaphorical. All three characters - as well as a couple others we eventually meet - have chosen to lose themselves in this vast wilderness for various personal reasons, but in doing so they have also become lost from themselves in an endless forest of their own minds and emotions. Throughout the film, several characters repeat the expression that you can only walk halfway into a forest, and then you are walking out again; Callie, who like Darkly has a traumatic past she is trying to put behind her, always refutes the expression, saying that no, you can walk as deep into a forest as the vastness of nature will let you, and it could go on forever. The Passion of Darkly Noon is a story about characters who have wandered very, very deep into their own forests, and have gotten lost there, to the point that finding their way out again is a much more difficult journey than just walking the other half.

Ridley's forest is both a beautiful and terrible place, richly layered with themes of trauma and healing (or the lack thereof), repression and self-realization, shame and love, and the deadly grip of fanaticism, both religious and personal. His script is outstanding in its intimate nuance, and his background as a playwright is clear in how well he is able to convey so much thematic depth with such a small central cast. The three lead actors are all excellent: Ashley Judd as the intensely charismatic seemingly-free-spirit with hidden tragedy beneath the surface, Viggo Mortensen as a character who is mute, but whose physicality and facial features speak volumes, and Brendan Fraser as the young man haunted in ways he doesn't have the emotional education to understand. Judd and Mortensen are right at home in this kind of indie drama - particularly Mortensen, having already starred in Ridley's The Reflecting Skin - but it took me a minute to not experience some cognitive dissonance from Fraser's performance. Given his star image as a goofy but charming comic leading man that he was well on his way to developing in 1995 and that really took off shortly thereafter, to say that he is aggressively playing against type here is an understatement. He plays a character with a whole lot of baggage: a deeply socially-awkward young man straining against a stutter, some kind of developmental disability, and a whole lot of trauma, who has never known life outside of an abusive cult, and is tasting freedom for the first time and feeling an inner darkness rise up in response. It's a tough role, and the film relies on the character working well in order to work as a whole; casting Fraser fresh off of Encino Man and Airheads was undoubtedly a gamble. It was a successful one, though: he is very good in the role, fully devoting himself to Darkly's emotionally tumultuous, tortured journey. He commits to the character with serious dedication, and displays a side of his range that we seldom get the chance to see. Not only does he hold his own next to Judd and Mortensen, he gives us some moments that provoke genuine gasps and squirms as he takes the character, and us, to some pretty uncomfortable places. 

These three actors carry a good three quarters of the movie themselves, but a few other supporting players pop up here and there in small but memorable roles. David Lynch favorite Grace Zabriskie is very good in the (definitely type-cast) role of an embittered and unbalanced recluse living deep in the forest. And Lou Myers steals a couple scenes in a fantastically over-the-top performance as a flamboyant undertaker who soliloquizes about the virtues of death as the ultimate business. It's a strange supporting cast, but an excellent one, and very fitting for the strange and unusual style of Philip Ridley as a storyteller.

Like most of Ridley's work, The Passion of Darkly Noon has a vein of slight surrealness running through it, and elements of magical realism that pop up from time to time. The whole thing often has the feeling of a dream; or perhaps a fever-dream induced by sun-stroke. The film's cinematography, by John de Borman, is stunning, and both hyperreal and very ethereal. The whole film is shot deliberately overexposed, and the contrast is pumped up in post, so that every scene set in the sun is bleeding light and radiating a palpable heat, and every moment within the woods is rich with heightened colors. It is a film of great beauty that also gives the viewer the feeling of intoxicated delirium that Darkly feels. The movie's frequently-used wide shots make stunning use of the scenery, dwarfing the characters within the 2.35:1 super-wide shot compositions. The compositions are so carefully-framed, and so beautiful, that this is one of those movies where almost any shot could be printed out and framed on a wall. Which is why it is a serious shame that prior to this blu-ray, it was only available in a pan-n-scan 4:3 transfer that totally destroyed those careful widescreen shots; this is a movie that really needs to be seen in the aspect ratio it was intended to be seen in, because the visuals are so immaculate. I also can't imagine how the overexposed look of the film must have suffered on VHS, with the color-bleeding that that medium struggled with; it can't have done the visuals justice.

Arrow Video has truly done a commendable job in rescuing The Passion of Darkly Noon from obscurity, and presenting it in the way it always should have been seen. Their new 2K transfer is gorgeous, and restores the film to its intended, not-seen-since-theaters look with great love and care. It also features Arrow's usual outstanding array of extras, including a brand-new commentary by Ridley, brand-new interviews with cinematographer John de Borman, editor Leslie Healey, and composer Nick Bicât, a visual essay about Ridley's two Southern-Gothic films, and a 2015 featurette about the film featuring Ridley, Bicât, and Viggo Mortensen. Between the new extras and the beautiful transfer, Arrow's disc is exactly what the film needs to finally complete its journey from obscure cult-classic to full-on indie/art-house classic. This is a phenomenal film that deserves rediscovery: if you have never seen it, I highly recommend that you pick up this blu-ray and see it, and if you have only seen it on DVD or VHS, you've never seen it like this. The deep woods of Ridley's tumultuous emotional portrait are not always easy ones to navigate, and it isn't as simple as walking halfway in and then back out, but they are well worth getting lost in.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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