In Shakespeare’s best play Othello (yep, I put it out there, I’m ready for an Elizabethan smackdown), Iago looks right at the audience and freely admits what he is about to do, and then goes and does it, removing any dramatic tension in the plot of the play.What it does leave is all the energy of the audience to focus on the characters and how they deal with the events of the story.
Patrick Ryan’s thriller DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN operates in much the same way. In the opening sequence, a spectacular wordless ten minutes of tension, Cleo Callahan says goodbye to her estranged older sister Ashy, who has long since moved to Dublin and visits every six weeks with gifts of cash and cigarettes. Ashy is brutally murdered in a bathroom by Robin O’Riley, who we very quickly find out is Cleo’s best friend. The rest of the film plays out as a sort of wild goose chase where Cleo, often with the help of Robin, tries to find her sister’s killer and enact her revenge.
Not surprisingly, Cleo and Robin’s relationship is very complicated, and at the risk of moral turpitude, you sort of feel bad for Robin, who has placed herself in an unwinnable position. Shot in rural Ireland, the film has its closest genre ties to the American Western. The landscape is beautiful and oppressive; the morality for nearly everyone involved is highly questionable; there are enough shootouts to satisfy the fans of both the slow burn and modern thriller.
DARKNESS is a very satisfying indie film – the exotic locale makes it very different from the latest mumble-core, shot in my apartment films, the tone is very dark, but the characters are strong and nuanced.
It’s almost like a devious modern Merchant Ivory film, if such a thing might exist. After playing a few festivals in its Irish homeland, Darkness made its international premiere at Slamdance, though it looks a lot better and tells a more complete story than most of the narratives I saw at Sundance. The film followed Sundance with screenings at San Francisco Indie Fest and then just this last weekend, the Chicago Irish Film Festival. I had a chance to sit down with writer/director Patrick Ryan, cinematographer/producer Tommy Fitzgerald, and actress Emma Eliza Regan, who played Cleo and discuss their east-of-the-US western.
“I’d always seen that landscape growing up — very dramatic mountainous landscape,” says writer/director Ryan, about where they shot DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN, “since I got interested in doing films I was always thinking it’d be great to shoot a western, because it really lends itself to it, but also be a new take, and original take that hadn’t been done before.”
The twist on the western he added, was this sort of Shakespearean unhidden villain. Ryan was fascinated with the way Iago says to the audience, to paraphrase: “‘I’m going to screw this guy over. And you’re going to watch me.’ … And Othello doesn’t know, all the way through. He finds out at the end, and that’s kind of the main tension of it. I thought I hadn’t really seen that a lot of that in film.”
It’s a very strong choice, one that Ryan had to defend a few times, including to his screenwriting tutors, as the script was written as part of his masters program. “My first defense was you’re going to treat the audience like idiots if you keep this hidden,” he says, “because you’ve got these two girls, one of whom is the victim and the other is around but doesn’t really have a part in the story. I thought it’d be too obvious.”
Instead the audience gets to enjoy watching Cleo entrusting her deepest feelings to effectively her greatest enemy, and watch Robin struggle with helping her best friend, if only to keep herself out of her crosshairs. Regan had the difficulty of playing essentially the only one not in on it. “It just instantly made it more interesting to me,” she said. With DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN is not about the murder, it’s about “the psychology of it and the relationship between the girls,” she continues, “the audience all know the secret.”
From a structural standpoint, however, the revelation in minute five makes a great majority of the film a series of red herrings. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it gives Robin a chance to throw herself fully behind Cleo’s plans… when they aren’t leading to her. It also allows the audience to dive fully in the world, as Cleo and Robin investigate leads and track down suspects. “You want to try to bring as many nasty obstacles as possible, nasty characters,” the director says, “there’s a major plot point at the end of act two, I wanted something that Cleo could focus on that seems entirely plausible, and all these things are going on in the background as Cleo is focused on a likely suspect.” And then, when she thinks she has it, she’s blind sided by something else entirely, and that is before she even figures out it is Robin. The film never gets too bogged down in a CSI: Ireland mode of investigating clues, it’s a much grittier and emotional journey.
In addition to Shakespeare, Ryan had another source of inspiration, David Chase, creator of the Sopranos. “At the end of the second episode Tony is trying to figure out who the rat is in his gang,” he remembers, “and David Chase said he has no interest in this series of clues that he finds and pieces together. He’s more interested in the psychology of it and that’s why the answer comes to Tony through dreams.” This also make’s the audience’s response to Robin much more interesting. Because the film opens with this horrifying action, made more horrifying by Robin’s relationship with Cleo, the audience has to dislike her right from the top. But as the film develops, they start to see it from her, admittedly skewed, perspective. “I think they all relate to her because everybody’s a bit flawed and they all have done something they feel guilty about,” says Regan, “and I think she still has Cleo’s best interests at heart, so it’s an interesting dilemma for the audience.”
The two characters also work as inverse versions of each other somewhat. Whereas Cleo is very guarded and doesn’t show her emotions much, Robin’s the exact opposite. She’s all emotion. If Cleo would just pay more attention, she might figure it out, but she doesn’t, and she never has. “Yeah, and also in regards to casting,” Ryan agrees, “I think the two girls have very different acting styles. [Emma] Eliza [Regan]’s very stoic and you kind of project emotion on to her, whereas Emma [Willis, who played Robin]’s very quick at projecting emotion. …Two halves of one thing.” Regan summarizes it even better: “I always thought Robin was the mouth, and Cleo was the mind.” Despite a strong sexual undertone to their relationship, it never bubbles over onto screen in a physical manner, adding to Robin’s obsession. “I didn’t ever play on the sexual side of it, because I don’t think Cleo did. She wasn’t in that frame of mind,” Regan explains, “but I think for two teenage girls, when you’re close, women are very physical with one another: doing each other’s hair… Lying in bed together, lying in the bath together… when you’re that age you are very close and physical.”
Not only is the chemistry between the actresses the driving force of the film, but this chemistry even exists in flashback scenes, with younger versions of the girls. In fact, the performances are so strong, the looks so similar, I actually asked Ryan if he had shot a short three years earlier with the same cast. “The truth is they were very close to home,” he says, “the young girl who played [young]Robin is Tommy’s sister. That was very happy for us. And the girl who played the young Cleo was someone we found at a local drama school close to where we were shooting.”
Seeing the younger versions of the girls allows their relationship to really have a depth that can’t come out in the events of the story, we see how they got to this point, and why they banded together as outsiders. DARKNESS really benefits from how packed these characters and interactions are, almost as if they were based on a thousand page novel (they’re not). One of my favorite details is the way Cleo’s sister gives her cigarettes every time she visits. Cleo, who doesn’t smoke, keeps them in a drawer right by her bed, unwilling to part with them, but also not able to tell her sister she doesn’t need them. And Ashy wants to do something for Cleo, but that something is sort of bad for her, and it also kind of proves she doesn’t really know her sister – which can only serve to really antagonize Robin. After Ashy’s death, Cleo finally opens a pack and tries to smoke, but she can’t. “It’s like the only thing she has to hold on,” Regan says, “she’s trying to hold onto her. There’s a little bit of her family in them.”
One of the most amazing things about the film is that all these relationships are very well-established by ten minutes into the film, and all without dialogue, as DARKNESS basically opens with an extended visual sequence. “I found it quite interesting to collaborate on just visuals and actors,” says cinematographer Fitzgerald, “and we didn’t have any sound as such to worry about.” It also really permits the landscape to draw the audience in, looming over the characters as they quickly set themselves down paths making the ending inevitable. “We just open with the whodunit,” says Ryan, “and the question becomes how badly these people hurt each other, what are the relationships and how entrenched are they. And then you’re trying to figure it out, and then you see them match up, and THEN they start speaking. Hopefully have a fairly good idea of who’s who by the time you get to that.” Fitzgerald says he studied other westerns, as well as the work of Roger Deakins to get the look right. “We wanted to create something dark, something sinister, but at the same time try to keep it in that Western vibe, with those wide lenses,” he says, “indies tend to favor a lot of handheld, shallow focus kind of thing, I want to stay as far away from that as I possibly could. So was all about control of movement, very static cameras, Long tracking shots.” I don’t speak camera, but he said he used a lot of 14 mm lenses. “Composition and framing,” he says is the key, “lens choice is just the way it shapes the image.”
Patrick Ryan’s DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN was acquired by international distributor CinemaVault but no word has been announced yet on US markets. The film screens next at the Mauvais Genre Film Festival, in Tours, France.