For Abe (Jordan Gelber), there is one simple truth in life: "We're all horrible people."
He articulates this insight in Todd Solondz's new film Dark Horse, while on a painfully awkward date with Miranda (Selma Blair), a chronically depressed woman he meets at a wedding reception, where both of them look on glumly at everyone else dancing and having a good time.
That observation is a rare moment of clarity for Abe, a 35-year-old spoiled brat who coasts through life getting other people to do his work for him at his father's real estate management company, driving a hideous canary-yellow Hummer his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) undoubtedly financed for him, and generally feeling put-upon by a world that's actually constantly making concessions for him.
The fact that he lumps himself into the rest of humanity with that "We" is significant because for once he acknowledges what's painfully apparent to anyone watching: He's one of the horrible people he's so jaundiced about.
Solondz is a filmmaker who has long specialized in the art of putting those horrible people onscreen and making them engaging enough to tolerate through an entire film. (Either that, or he spends so much time shocking us with their behavior that we're powerless to turn away.)
Dark Horse finds the director in a gentler mood: The most shocking moment is a passing reference to a left-of-center sexual act that's fairly tame by Solondz's standards, and while Abe may be egotistical, solipsistic and infuriatingly entitled, he's practically a teddy bear compared to the director's usual rogue's gallery of rapists, pedophiles, bullies and abusers.
There's also an element of self-pity in Abe that stirs the faintest of sympathies. Despite the awkwardness of their interactions, he goes for the gold on his first real date with Miranda, asking her to marry him. She considers it, even though she clearly has no actual interest, mostly because she's entirely given up on any kind of happiness anyway.
"I want to want you," she tells him apologetically. His response is desperate and pathetic, but Gelber sells the loneliness under the surface when he tells her, "That's enough for me."
Solondz's recent work has been as notable for its experiments in form as for its outrageous or misanthrophic content, whether in Palindromes' use of a dozen actors to play a single character, or Storytelling's paired but largely unrelated mini-features. With shock value taking a back seat in Dark Horse, the surrealist flourishes and reality-obscuring structure of the film's second half come to define the picture.
There's a pivotal event midway through the film that doesn't happen so much as it is suggested, and as soon as it does the movie takes a left turn into layered, interlocking dreams, fantasies and imaginings. It's almost as if Solondz is attempting a drab and deadpan spin on David Lynch: All the heavily symbolic dances around reality, without the dreamy stylization or ominous foreboding.
Abe, who through the first half was headstrong and bullheaded (he calls it a "front-runner mentality, dark horse qualities"), now just seems lost and sad; the intent seems to leave the viewer just as off-balance as Abe is. In that regard, the director is successful, but the accompanying attempts at metaphor come off as heavy-handed; it's probably not necessary to show Abe in a hospital bed, skin and eyes yellowed from hepatitis, to drive home the message that his view of the world is jaundiced.
Despite its flaws, Dark Horse largely succeeds as yet another installment in Todd Solondz's career-long examination of the lust for love and security among the deeply damaged. In the film's final shot, he playfully raises the question of whether this is really even Abe's story at all. In some ways, it's the most confrontational moment of the film, a moment of provocation that finds the director poking us, as is his habit, but without using the sharp end of the stick. Perhaps that's a newfound maturity in his work, told through the story of a man desperately in need of growing up.