October 6th, 2009 saw two very momentous occasions. Firstly, and most importantly, it was my birthday. Secondly, Thomas Jane’s first feature directorial effort (he’s listed as having directed Jonni Nitro, but even I’m clueless as to what that is) Dark Country was released on DVD. Our own Rob Hunter listed the film as a rental in his DVD recommendations but that didn’t stop me from heading out and purchasing it. Then, in a bit of good fortune, I promptly tossed it on the “to watch” pile and forgot about it for three weeks. I say good fortune because not watching the standard, 2D version of the film allowed me to walk into a small, one of a kind screening in late October, the first ever Annual Halloween screening of the film – in glorious 3 dimensions. So my first experience with the film would be as intended – in a theater, with the full effect of the 3D, not on some TV with a flat picture.
Cut to late October and I’m settled in at a Halloween screening, complete with decorations and, no joke, a string trio playing along. The film is introduced by Tom Jane and some characters in face paint as he takes a very Crypt Keeper like approach to the night, complete with “gaping chest wound” t-shirt and flashlights. After a brief intro, the glasses go on and the film comes up.
Dark Country is a Twilight Zone-esque thriller that follows a newly-wed couple Dick (Tom Jane) and Gina (Lauren German) as they drive out of Las Vegas in a vintage car, heading deep into the dark desert country with some steamy love between them and plenty of questions between them. In the dark night on the empty roads, things quickly go south when they come across a car wreck and a badly injured man in the road. Attempting to do the right thing, they load his bloody, disfigured body into the car and go off in search of a hospital. As one might expect, soon they’re lost and the bloodyfaced hitchhiker in the back reveals he’s got some murderous secrets of his own.
Walking into a film like this, I often don’t know what to expect or what I’m in store for. I’m no stranger to lower budget Tom Jane movies, like the not-great Mutant Chronicles or the totally-awesome Give ’em Hell Malone of late, two different sides of the coin. One works, the other not as much. What makes Dark Country both smart and impressive is the budget – under $4million dollars. For that price, most movies only get the gift bags for their star actors, but Jane and crew get a coherent 3D motion picture up on the screen. I mention smart because when you’re working with little money, you can’t over extend yourself. Shooting for a sci-fi epic (a la Mutant Chronicles) you’re probably going to come up short. But if you’re smart, you find the right story with the right location and $4 million becomes just enough to put out the finished product. Indeed, when you hear about all the ingredients to this film, that it turns out as well as it did, it’s downright amazing. Firstly, you have Tom Jane, a hard-working guy taking his first crack at directing who decides to make it even more difficult on himself by jumping right into 3D. Secondly, toss in a low budget, the untested 3D technology, brand new (aka untested) equipment, night shoots, a short 25 day shooting schedule and the freaking New Mexican desert. The cards were seemingly stacked against the production, that was mired with freezing cold nights and equipment that didn’t always want to work correctly. In one story relayed by Jane after the film, a fancy shmancy piece of equipment meant to raise and lower the camera malfunctioned, stopping production. One for practical solutions, they replaced the machine with the simplest of tools – the human hand – then set the camera onto the road and let the car drive harmlessly over it. That’s how you stretch a budget.
About the movie itself – overall, I liked it. The film is by no means perfect and, personally, started off on the wrong foot for me. I wasn’t engaged in the first few minutes and was beginning to fear a long ride into mediocrity. Luckily, once Dick and Gina had moved into the car, the story quickly shifted gears, sunk in its hooks, and managed to be an enjoyable ride through the dark country. Not until writing down their names (Dick and Gina) did I realize that their names are in fact Dick and (va)Gina. I don’t say this in jest, but perhaps this was a very intentional choice to have them symbolize masculine and feminine sex. Perhaps a wayward thought – until you see the steamy scene in the car. Then the theory gains about a metric ton of weight behind it. We’ve seen terrible sex scenes in cars, like in The Chase when two people somehow engage in coitus while in the middle of a high speed car chase without crashing. The scene in Dark Country is not Dick in Gina (haha, I crack myself) sex, but it is one of the most effective and exciting sexual scenes I’ve seen on film in years. That is the moment when the film really has you and from then on in, it was a far better experience than the first minutes indicated.
Plot wise, the story has that Twilight Zone esque twist you know is coming from the very start. Many of you will probably be able to predict it correctly, but that said, it’s not a deal breaker. I’m a huge fan of The Twilight Zone and even when you know what’s coming, it’s still a fine drive to the finish.
The biggest divider of people who see this movie is going to be style. It’s a love it or leave it type deal, that most likely works far better in 3D than in 2D. Make no mistake, the look of the film is very intentional. Both Jane and Tim Bradstreet (famed artist, Dark Country unofficial production designer and Raw Studios honcho) talked at length about the look of the film, describing it as “intended for a comic book audience.” This is an accurate way to describe much of the film, from the color palate to the angles. Color wise, the film is silvery, channeling in bits of noir and vintage film, while in shot selection, Jane proves himself to be visually very deft with the camera. Certain angles (namely a low angle looking at Bloodyface and out the back of the rear window of the car) are rarely seen in movies, at least in my experience, but are fairly common in graphic novels.
There was a lot of attention paid to the sky with almost every scene having a brilliant, colorful night sky composited in. The photography was taken especially for the film by one of the nation’s only 3D nightsky photographers (a very limited position, one assumes), who spent days up in the hills taking shots of the night sky. To call the images breath-taking is an understatement, though some may be unable or unwilling to look past the fact that it’s a stylized nightsky, the kind you’d never see with the naked eye. I say, when you’re dealing with a stylized film, let’s do it – go all out. The sky worked for me.
Now, I haven’t fully watched the 2D version of the film, but from what I have seen the 3D element makes the entire picture look better. The compositing (green-screening), which is one of the main criticisms of the 2D version, looks far better in three dimensions than it does in two. Dark Country is also one of the first films to fully utilize 3D for image depth rather than gimmicks. In the entirety of the movie there are only two “gimmick” 3D shots, with everything else being about the expansion of the image rather than making you giggle. I have long championed the return of 3D as a valuable and viable tool for creating image depth rather than jump scares. (I saw my first RealD live action movie in 2006 and have supported the technology ever since) Dark Country goes miles down the road in proving that 3D is here and it isn’t a joke or a toy for a kid’s movie. For any photographers out there, you understand the real magic of photography is in the depth of field and focal lengths and 3D technology opens an entirely new window.
I would be remiss in not talking briefly about the acting, but I do want to keep it brief as I’ve gone on for some time now. Tom Jane has always been an effective actor, whether it’s in comedy or drama or Punishing, but lately it seems that his game is fully realized. Mainstream critics have come around to him and praise his performance in Hung, telling us what we already knew – the guy is good. In Country, he plays a more dramatic role and nails a wide variety of emotions. I feel like he turns in a fantastic performance here. Lauren German is also good, though after her ice-cube-masturbation scene (there, I said it) she could sit there with a blank expression on her face the rest of the time and I’d still praise her performance. Ron Perlman appears late in the game and he’s Ron Perlman – nuff said.
In conclusion, Dark Country is not a perfect film, but it’s a much better film in 3D. The story isn’t groundbreaking and again I’ll mention The Twilight Zone, but the acting is top notch from Jane, the style of the film is very much grounded in the comic world, and several scenes are over the top awesome. If nothing else, Jane has proven two things: The guy can direct and 3D is awesome. As I’m sure many of you are fans of Jane, Bradstreet, and Raw Studios (hey, we’re all nerds here), be on the lookout of “Raw Cola” early in the film.
During the Q&A after the film, Jane and Bradstreet mentioned a desire and intent to tour several cities with the film and show it in 3D. Hopefully this gets off the ground and gives people more opportunities to see the film the way it was meant to be. If we’re lucky in LA, they’ll also keep that “Annual” promise and continue to show the film every Halloween.
Final words? Definitely worth checking out in 3D.
You can purchase Dark Country on DVD at Amazon.com