By Mique Watson
A social worker happens upon a trailer home. In it she finds a dead woman who has presumably overdosed; her body is surrounded by various pill bottles and a half-consumed NyQuil. The social worker explores the home and finds a young girl in a wooden chest. This is a chilling start to a tale which portrays grief and guilt in such an engaging and fresh way. Although flawed in structure, it succeeds in delivering the hysterical mother trope in ways which are fresh, exciting, and haunting. “The Dark Red” demonstrates, vividly, that some clichés deserve to be demolished and rebuilt; that in a more adventurous movie environment undercutting these tropes wouldn’t feel as fresh as it does here.
The story then jumps forward and we are introduced to Sybill (portrayed incredibly and sympathetically by April Billingsley); it is revealed that it was she who was the young girl in the chest from years past, and that life since then has been less than a fairytale: the woman who had adopted and cared for her died a year prior, and she is currently being held in a psych ward. Her alleged delusion? She claims that her unborn baby has been stolen from her.
“The Dark Red” demonstrates, vividly, that some clichés deserve to be demolished and rebuilt; that in a more adventurous movie environment undercutting these tropes wouldn’t feel as fresh as it does here.”
Such an outlandish claim has aroused skepticism, of course, and Sybill’s story sounds less than convincing. The film is divided into three therapy sessions, as Sybill recounts her story to Dr DeLuce (Kelsey Scott); each session comes with a flashback, and the longer we hear Sybill’s tale, the more absurd and implausible it sounds. Sybill holds the conviction that these tales are true, yet, beyond her personal certainty, all evidence goes against her outlandish claims. Writer/director Dan Bush shoots Billingsley in such a way that puts us in Dr DeLuce’s shoes as we audiences are also tasked to assess and evaluate Sybill.
Bush ensures that this is all well performed, and that we as an audience are sympathetic to Sybill’s plight, but he also succeeds in keeping us questioning ourselves. At the film’s midpoint, we’re led to believe that the story could go two ways: (1) be a tale of a woman so haunted by the loss of an infant, that her brain manufactures a false story to help her cope, or (2) be a tale about the nefarious plot of someone/something to steal a woman’s baby.
“This fresh and interesting exploration of the hysterical mother trope is elevated by Billingsley’s incredible performance as Sybill…This film is helped massively by her performance, and I do hope we see much more of her in the future.”
There’s not much going on beyond that. The biggest issue this film has is its structure: it feels like an overlong (albeit intriguing) first act, virtually no middle act, and a rushed finale which goes one way and casts all potential for ambiguity aside. This finale might seem jarring to some viewers in how the tone shifts from a deliberately paced horror/thriller, to fast-paced action flick. This shouldn’t suggest the film does anything preposterously unforgivable–however, some viewers may be left disappointed at the inevitable transparency presented here. In spite of this, Bush remarkably succeeds in sustaining dread and tension throughout–we are constantly on our feet, and able to empathize with Sybill; even when the film ends, there is much to be unpacked and debated on.
This fresh and interesting exploration of the hysterical mother trope is elevated by Billingsley’s incredible performance as Sybill. Her IMDB page says that the last film she was in was Tom Cruise-starring “American Made” wherein she plays a stewardess; before that she was in “Last Vegas” where she plays the maid of honor–both unnamed small roles, both films wherein she is criminally underused. Emphasis on criminally–seeing her range of talent here, how her performance is able to shift with the film’s sudden tonal shift is absolutely riveting; she goes from hysterically unstable to cold, stoic and vengeful so elegantly it’s amazing. She reminded me so much of Rebecca Hall, particularly in the film “Christine”. This film is helped massively by her performance, and I do hope we see much more of her in the future.
Rating: Four out of five stars.
Signature Entertainment presents The Dark Red on Digital HD 18th November 2019