Todd Solondz carved out a name for himself in the late ‘90s indy scene with brutal send-ups of suburban hypocrisy like Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse. His most recent film, Dark Horse, has just been released on Blu-ray following a limited theatrical run, courtesy of Virgil Films. The film stars Selma Blair and Jason Gelber, and also features a gleaming supporting cast that includes Christopher Walken, Mia Farrow, Donna Murphy, and Aasif Mandvi. Dark Horse is a departure in many ways from Solondz’s typical modus operandi, but though it may not pack the emotionally vivisecting punch of a movie like Happiness, its redemptive poignancy lies mainly in its relationship to the director’s previous body of work.
Jordan Gelber plays Abe, a forty-year old manchild blithely resigned to a bland existence of action-figure collecting in the childhood bedroom of his parents’ house. Abe’s life ostensibly changes for the better when he meets Miranda (Selma Blair), a beautiful young depressive with whom he becomes romantically obsessed. Miranda seems foggily unreceptive at first, but Abe gradually wears her down, convinced that their romance will gloriously revolutionize his staid existence and provide the key to mutual happiness. As the romance progresses, however, Abe is increasingly tripped up by obstacles both tangible and elusory as he struggles to grasp the possibility that his burgeoning relationship, and his own identity, may not be as they seem.
Welcome to the Dollhouse, Solondz’s 1995 breakout movie, was marked by a hellish kitsch aesthetic and uncompromised cynicism, elevating the material to the level of surrealistic poetry. As his career progressed throughout the early 2000’s, however, his work has become increasingly defined by self-referential intertextuality – by the construction of an interconnected, cumulative universe encompassing all of his characters. Each of Solondz’s films following Happiness has subtly incorporated at least one character or storyline from a previous film, sometimes merely alluding to a character’s continuing existence (or lack thereof, as in the opening sequence of Palindromes), and at other times provocatively recasting or reinterpreting characters entirely.
Solondz didn’t invent these sorts of tricks, but what makes it so fascinating to watch in his particular case is the defiant one-dimensionality of his earliest films. Dollhouse and Happiness both tapped into strains of cultural disaffection that resonated deeply because they were so typical. The pain and impotent rage of youth identifies perfectly with a character like Dawn Weiner, totally helpless to defend herself against the Machiavellian network of cold, preoccupied indifference surrounding her. It’s easy to understand how audiences expecting a typical Solondz film might be confused or disappointed by Dark Horse, finding it less penetratingly abrasive than his previous work, and dismissing it therefore as unfocused or lacking clear vision. In reality, however, Dark Horse is not a capitulation at all, but a bold and revealing creative shift for the director. While films like Dollhouse, Happiness, Storytelling, and Palindromes allfeatured childlike introverts beset by a sociopathic universe, Dark Horse interprets its hapless protagonist as a victim of a self-imposed, willful disconnect from reality, too mired in arrogant self-pity and laziness to bother truly loving anything.
Virgil unfortunately doesn’t offer any special features on their disc aside from trailers, but the film is a strong entry for Solondz regardless, and deserves to be seen. Though many of the film’s elements are characteristically bleak, it’s tantalizing to observe how much more unapologetically redemptive Solondz is gradually becoming, and if Dark Horse proves anything, it’s that no matter how many times he reimagines himself, has no intention of becoming redundant.
Follow Devon Ashby on Twitter at @DevAshby.