Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Fantastic Fest ’17: Darkland

Ziad is a doctor, so he has prestige within the Danish establishment. He can also patch up wounds, which will be helpful for his second career as a street vigilante. Unfortunately, he doesn’t take street-sweeping seriously enough until it is almost too late in Fenar Ahmad’s Darkland (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantastic Fest.

As the first-generation son of Iraqi immigrants, Zaid has triumphantly integrated into Danish society. His thuggish younger brother Yasin, not so much. After a heist goes down badly, Yasin comes looking for help from his long-suffering brother, but Yasin turns him away. The next time Zaid sees him, the comatose Yasin is in need of a plug-pulling. His pregnant pasty white girl friend Stine tries to comfort him, but he is determined to flagellate himself with guilt. He is also increasingly frustrated by what he perceives as a lack of urgency on the part of the police to find his brother’s killer. Of course, he attributes this to anti-immigrant xenophobia rather than the fact Yasin was a bottom-feeding recidivist street criminal.

Eventually, Zaid will become so consumed with rage, he looks up a few old friends who will help outfit him as a body-armored vigilante. It is never exactly spelled out, but we eventually deduce Zaid’s past is more checkered than the image he presents. Soon he starts attacking the criminal network of Semion, the local kingpin obviously responsible for Yasin’s death. Unfortunately, Zaid is too dilettantish about his payback, giving Semion ample time and space to strike back. All you kids at home need to remember your revenge isn’t finished until there’s nobody left to kill—and also, you should stay in school and study hard.

Darkland is indeed stylishly noir, thanks to the vision of Ahmad and the cinematography of Kasper Tuxen. However, it is the sort of revenge movie that is too embarrassed by its genre to let us experience the vicarious payback in peace. Instead, it keeps shoving messages down our throat about how violence never solved anything, even though the whole of recorded human history suggests otherwise.

Still, Borgen and Game of Thrones alumnus Dar Salim is searingly intense and darkly brooding as Zaid. It is a quiet but muscularly physical performance. We never accidentally overlook him as he blends into the walls, that’s for sure. Ali Sivandi also makes a worthy nemesis for him as the flamboyantly sinister Semion.

Darkland offers up a zeitgeisty guilt trip, but it still has the elements of a gritty genre picture, so it is hard to guess whether Denmark will select it as their foreign language Oscar submission. Currently, it is one the three-film shortlist, with the final decision due today. It has considerable merit, but it could have been even more compelling if it were not so misguidedly determined to be politically relevant. Recommended for fans of violent street crime dramas, who don’t mind the periodic swing into social criticism, Darkland screens this Friday (9/22) and next Wednesday (9/27), as part of this year’s Fantastic Fest, assuming they still have enough people on staff to show the films.