By the time you get to the giant glittering silver shoe floating in the river, you’ll know whether “The Passion of Darkly Noon” is your kind of insanity.
I knew right from the start, because I’d seen writer/director Philip Ridley’s previous film, 1990’s The Reflecting Skin, the oddest, most obsessive and morbid rural fantasia ever made, at least until The Passion of Darkly Noon. If anything deserves the full Criterion treatment, these two movies do; as it is, neither of them is available on properly letterboxed DVD in America. What’s worse, Ridley has taken fourteen years to make another film–Heartless, which, as I write this, is listed in the IMDb as being in “post-production.” Get it done! The world has waited too long for more Philip Ridley cinema!
Back to Darkly Noon, wherein the eponymous character (a stammering, sweaty, never-better Brendan Fraser) collapses on a forest road, delirious and disturbed. A local undertaker’s assistant (Loren Dean) finds him and brings him to a remote house belonging to the mute carpenter Clay (Viggo Mortensen), who occasionally builds coffins for him. Clay isn’t around, but his lover Callie (Ashley Judd) is, and she takes Darkly in. We discover that Darkly comes from an ultra-religious sect, which has been persecuted and finally attacked by men with guns and helicopters (shades of the Branch Davidians). Only Darkly, apparently, escaped with his life; his ma and pa were killed.
Darkly carries a bible and takes the word of God very, very seriously and literally. Callie is more secular and wants Darkly (whom she calls Lee) to loosen up a bit; she invites him to join her in an outdoor spa in the woods, but he won’t even undo his top shirt button. After dark, Callie strays onto her front porch for a smoke, and Darkly’s hand wanders into his pants. On one level, The Passion of Darkly Noon is as advertised by the title–a study of one deranged man’s impacted sexuality. But there’s more in store. In the woods, Darkly meets a bitter woman (Grace Zabriskie) who believes Callie is a witch. This woman has left dead birds wrapped in barbed wire all over the forest, to train her dog not to crush them when he retrieves them. It’s as vivid a metaphor for biting the forbidden fruit as any.
Darkly, being human, wants to bite the fruit–all the more so when Clay finally returns home. Darkly disapproves of Callie and Clay’s living arrangement and spends more of his time in the barn loft where he’s staying; he has visions of his ma and pa, he gradually stops stammering, and he finds another use for barbed wire. Concurrently, Ridley’s technique grows more eccentric, with jump cuts, sudden zooms, and one deep-focus shot that’s almost like split-screen. As in The Reflecting Skin, Ridley keeps tight control–it’s never just weirdness for its own sake. Eventually the movie goes Apocalypse Now, complete with a shirtless, painted Darkly stalking through the forest with a big blade.
What Ridley (a Brit) is after with these films, I think, is southern gothic–along the lines of Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor–only with frayed edges and spiked with peyote. Darkly Noon has nothing trite or obvious to “say” about religious mania or persecution. Those things just provide the meat of this thick stew of obsession. Ridley simply puts a repressed man with a sexually free woman and watches what happens–while also, of course, adding his own sui generis touches. You could trace his approach back to Faulkner, Lynch, maybe Jodorowsky (an elephant figures in the final scene), but the way it all comes together is all Ridley.
Predictably, both these movies have made about fifteen cents in America, where we like our movin’ pictures straightforward and without true passion–on the screen or behind the camera. Philip Ridley tried twice during the ’90s to give us more. We ignored him, so he stayed in England writing plays and children’s fiction. Serves us right.