“Astonishing in its simple beauty, amazing performances, and hypnotic pace. The real thing.” That’s John Waters on fellow Baltimorean Matt Porterfield‘s first feature, Hamilton (2006). When Putty Hill appeared in 2010, Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir called it “a fresh, vital and emotionally engaging indie breakthrough. I’m just as excited about this film, and this filmmaker, as I was after seeing Stranger Than Paradise or She’s Gotta Have It 25 years ago.” This week, I Used to Be Darker has premiered in the NEXT section at Sundance and will screen in the Berlinale’s Forum next month. The site‘s a really nice browse, by the way.
Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn: “Porterfield’s third feature, co-written by Amy Belk, takes place in the aftermath of a decision by middle-aged couple Kim (Kim Taylor) and Bill (Ned Oldham) to end their marriage, much to the frustration of their daughter, college newbie Abby (Hannah Gross). Into this mess lands Taryn (Deragh Campbell), Kim’s niece and Abby’s first cousin, an alienated teen who ran away from her family in Northern Ireland before causing a ruckus in Maryland and abruptly crashing with her shell-shocked relatives. While Kim and Bill attempt to care for the young woman in the midst of their own problems, Abby grows increasingly resentful of her mother and Taryn evades the mounting pressure to call her parents. Plotwise, I Used to Be Darker has little to offer beyond those palatable ingredients, but Porterfield often seems more interested in using the scenario to establish a series of melancholic tones with incredibly effective results.”
“Though more conventionally structured than Putty Hill, the writer-director’s improv-driven previous effort, this quietly devastating family drama feels like a major step forward,” writes Time Out Chicago‘s A.A. Dowd. “Darker traces the unraveling of a marriage through casually loaded conversations, elegantly framed hangout sessions and—a trademark of this enormously talented young filmmaker—cathartic musical performances. (There are one-take ballads here, performed by real-life troubadours Taylor and Oldham, that rival the poignant karaoke sequence in Putty Hill.) Unlike the director’s previous work, the film is scripted, though it plays out in the same unhurried, quasi-plotless manner as its predecessors. Porterfield, whose parents divorced when he was about the same age as Gross’s character, understands the way that hurt feelings get passed among members of a fractured family. His smartest choice may be telling the story from the perspective of a distant relative, whose presence adds another complication to an already complicated situation.”
The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody: “As in Porterfield’s earlier films, his characters are rooted in a clear sense of place; the landscape is itself a character. His images here have less of a bravura aesthetic virtuosity and more of a connection to his characters, but no undue or directorially invasive proximity. Though the movie is scripted and the story is constructed…, he never gives the sense of doling out the details of a story that he knows, but, rather, of finding it out as it goes along—and the exquisitely tenuous fragility of his inquisitive but respectful distance from his characters bears it out.”
Dan Schoenbrun asks Porterfield five questions for Filmmaker, and here’s part of an answer to one of them: “Putty Hill was a just a 5-page treatment. All the dialogue was improvised. For I Used to Be Darker we went into production with an 89-page screenplay. On the one hand, this imposed structure gave the actors more to work with and also push against, which elevated the level of performance. On the other hand, it was somewhat constrictive having to make a certain number of script pages a day. I feel lucky to have made Putty Hill first, because it liberated me from feeling absolute loyalty to the page. Several times during the shoot, when things we’d written weren’t working, I’d throw the script out and improvise with the cast. And the results were always better than we’d imagined. Moving forward, I’d like to adjust the balance a little more, to give myself more time to work and play with the actors on location while still adhering to a pre-determined structure.”
Myself, I see Darker as a major leap forward for Porterfield. For one thing, he now has the confidence to frame far more spatially complex shots than in his previous two features. In the very first sequence, Taryn has a conversation that’ll set the story in motion—but we can’t hear it. Don’t need to, either, as we see the dialogue play out in body language outside on a patio from inside a beach house through a sliding glass door. Picking up on Richard Brody’s observation that “the landscape is itself a character,” just as a house in Brooklyn, too, is a character in Dan Sallitt’s superb The Unspeakable Act, the three-story monster Bill lives in alone, now that Kim’s on her way out, presents Porterfield with endless opportunities to define relationships between the characters—each of whom is going through his or her own painful transition—as they move toward, around, or away from each other within rooms or from one room to another, at times inquisitively, other times warmly, occasionally invasively. Conversations are overheard through open windows, lights are set high or low, signaling a willingness or unwillingness in one character to deal with another—or anyone at all.
As delightful as the fourth-wall-breaking interviews with the characters in Putty Hill are, the (almost) hermetically sealed world of Darker maintains our engagement, which may begin hesitantly, as the characters are in no hurry to introduce themselves, but grows at a gradual, steady pace. I put that “almost” in parentheses there because, when Kim or Bill perform a tune, we are fleetingly reminded that they are real-life musicians Kim Taylor and Ned Oldham. Here, too, as widely lauded as that “poignant karaoke sequence in Putty Hill” (Dowd) may be, these songs are just as integral to the narrative—but they’re simply filmed better.
Updates, 1/26: Dispatching to Film Comment, John Wildman finds that Darker “asks the viewer to invest more than the movie seems to do for itself. Toward its final third, I found myself having an imaginary conversation with Porterfield asking who he was making the movie for and who he thought would be inspired to make the trip to a theater and pay money to actually see it. While it is thoughtfully done and bears a distinctive directorial stamp, I just didn’t find it compelling.”
“I Used To Be Darker isn’t destined for wide release,” notes Sam Adams at the AV Club, “but it will be a crime if it doesn’t sell at least a few of Taylor’s smoky, broken-hearted records.”
Update, 2/3: Deadline‘s Mike Fleming Jr. reports that Monterey Media has acquired U.S. and Canadian rights.
Update, 2/4: At GreenCine Daily, Steve Dollar notes that “the visual design of the film, executed by Porterfield’s steady cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier with his signature clarity and poise, usually works against movie-movie imagery. Even its one romantic interlude happens pretty much in the dark. Everything is geared towards a subtlety, a hushed ambience that allows the viewer to hear the characters think. Some may call this underwhelming, a conspicuous lack of a “there” there. I’d argue that Porterfield’s gift for finely attenuated tone denies that assertion. When the movie suddenly cuts off, the immediate reaction is a sustained ‘Hmmmm.’ About 30 minutes later, you’re going for the Kleenex. It’s a stealth bomb.”
Update, 2/10: Jessica Kiang at the Playlist: “This a film that largely takes place either before or after the real dramas, so Porterfield sets himself a difficult task from the outset: how to dramatize that which is determinedly anti-dramatic? It’s an issue that the film, for all its small, well-observed pleasures, never really overcomes.”
Updates, 1/26: Beatrice Behn talks with Porterfield right here on Keyframe.
Charles H. Meyer for Cinespect: “As I exited the screening, I managed to catch Taylor and Oldham in person performing a duet of the classic song ‘Love Hurts’ in the CinemaxX café. It served as a nice extra-filmic addendum to bring closure to the fictional couple’s strife and to further underscore the pain between them.”
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