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.
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.”
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.”
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
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.