Dark (2017), dir. Paul Schrader

Dark, in some ways, is a modern day film holy grail. Reworked from Schrader’s film Dying of the Light (2014), Schrader worked outside of the purview of his producers, the film’s distributor (Grindhouse Entertainment/Lionsgate), copyright law and standard practices. In his online portfolio, Schrader displays an act of protest himself, replacing the poster for Dying of the Light with the film’s cast and crew wearing t-shirts in protest of the contractual non-disclosure agreement, and leaving the film’s credits empty. For months, my desire to view Dark was an unavailable dream, limited to the institutional structures of UCLA and UT Austin by prior appointment only. But Dark would become available for those that wanted to find it online, with Schrader claiming to upload a torrent. My adventure in downloading the file’s two parts and extracting the MKV from the RAR was almost as exciting as watching the film itself. Hiring NYU student Benjamin Rodriguez Jr., one of the film’s sole credits alongside Schrader (Ethan Hawke’s voiceover narration is uncredited), Dying of the Light was radically reworked from 94 minutes to a scant 76, making use of the DGA’s 10 week period of editing after spending 7 weeks on First Reformed and embracing the limitations ofusing only the commercially available Blu-ray and DVDs of the workprint, drawing on Stan Brakhage with experimental techniques. As the testimonial opening the film and in the description on Schrader’s portfolio states, it is for “historical record” over “exhibition or personal gain”. He described to IndieWire that it felt “like taking a stain off my shirt and replacing it with a cool button.” 

I would be curious if anyone has done a direct comparison with Dying of the Light over what material is altered, excised and included from the deleted scenes and the workprint DVDs. Empowering a director’s vision is certainly a worthwhile venture: there have been numerous cases of directors given a chance to rework their maligned or corrupted film for home release or even theatrical rerelease, and even cases of fan edits of Raising Cain (1992) and Waterworld (1995) granted official releases that had originally been produced illegally by Peet Gelderblom and McFly89 on Original Trilogy, given directorial approval and acceptance from Universal. That said, Dark is a rather unique case that either damns or heralds Schrader as a filmmaker. How has Cage responded to the new version? Is the right of the director the most important right?

As much as Dark attempts to improve upon its original VOD released form, it’s hard to escape the fundamentals. How good was Schrader’s screenplay in the first place? As Evan Lake, Nicolas Cage offers a reminder that he’s a serious actor and not just campy, but his performance is often exaggerated, talking about “ragheads”, cracking jokes about AIDS and complaining about the Obama administration. Using the word ‘raghead” had been a point of contention with the producers, who viewed it as “gratuitous” and irresponsible. There’s a sense of needed melancholy to his mental deterioration and inevitable early death at a young age, with the haunting final shot born out of a far different demise from the released version. But Lake also adopts an unconvincing assumed identity as a Romanian doctor in Kenya that really doesn’t work – especially when he pulls false hair and ear prosthetics away from his face. He has a solid ‘buddy cop’ relationship with Milton Schultz (Anton Yelchin), but the additional romantic subplot – kissing at the dinner table with Michelle (Irène Jacob) – seems gratuitous. There are some good visual compositions in the film, but much of the footage, especially of passing vehicles in Kenya or establishing shots in Romania, just seems cheap and poorly done, even in its original form.

Some of the disintegration of the image is wonderful, in shifting colours and overlays, footage shifting in time and recorded off the computer screen with an iPhone due to a lack of coverage to form close-ups of eyes, but in some scenes it feels forced, disrupting the digital compositions that work in a way that isn’t necessary. Scenes play in enlarged pixels; images of cells within the body appear; frames fade between each other. The film’s decay becomes its most heightened in Kenya, remixing the film with found footage of American war atrocities and devolving into squares, lonely highways and a sea of abstract colours reminiscent of the video art of the late Jeremy Blake in Punch-Drunk Love (2002). But it’s definitely memorable at least. I admire Schrader and Rodriguez Jr. for making this but it will still always feel incomplete. I can’t imagine this version will do Schrader any favours in the producers relinquishing control to allow a true version compiled from the rushes and with a new score.

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