Dark Summer (2000)

vt Innocents
US, Germany, Canada / 92 minutes / color / Cinerenta, Cineinnocent, Credo, Adagio Dir & Scr: Gregory Marquette Pr: Terry Carr, Gail Tilson Cine: Bruce Worrall Cast: Jean-Hugues Anglade, Connie Nielsen, Mia Kirshner, Keith David, Joseph Culp, James Quill, Robert Culp, Anne Archer, Frank Langella, Trae Thomas, Charles Knecht, Kent Allen, Jack Semple.

Dark Summer - 0 opener

Parisian cellist Gerard Huxley (Anglade), in the US to teach at the Juillard School in NYC, is driving cross-country when he’s forced off the road and into a cornfield. The next he knows he’s in hospital being tended by pretty nurse Megan Denright (Nielsen). On his discharge, she invites him back to her remote home for dinner before he continues his journey to Seattle. He meets her younger (and very much shorter) sister Dominique (Kirshner), who’s obviously somewhat eccentric, and their bedridden father Robert (Langella), who gives him a dismissive criticism of his cello-playing.

Dark Summer - 1 Langella as the bedridden father

Robert (Frank Langella) minces no words in his critique of Gerard’s cello playing.

Soon afterward, Gerard learns that Robert has died. After the funeral, he again goes back to the Denright home, this time sleeping with Megan and, though he doesn’t know it, being spied upon by Dominique. In the morning the two women act out what’s in effect a quite violent piece of improv theater, with Gerard as the chump who doesn’t realize what’s going on. Even though by now it’s evident to him that the two sisters are each as nutty as the other, he finds himself agreeing to take the two of them with him on his cross-country drive.

Dark Summer - 4 Gerard continues through what must seem an interminable night

Gerard (Jean-Hugues Anglade) drives through what must seem an interminable night.

From there on, we’re in a distinctly unsettling, odd, neonoirish road movie, a beautifully photographed picaresque in which the layers of assumed normality shielding the sisters’ lives from scrutiny are relentlessly stripped away, while Gerard becomes almost as much of a passive bystander as his cello. That’s not an entirely frivolous remark, because the cello does come to seem like a fourth passenger in the car, and it does in the end help them get out of some serious trouble.

Dark Summer - 3 Judge Winston confesses his evils

Judge Winston (Robert Culp) confesses his evils.

The three main highlights concern

  • the perverted retired Judge Winston (Robert Culp), who offers them accommodation for the night when they’ve got lost in the rain and then is caught spying on Megan as she bathes;
  • the girls’ estranged alcoholic mother Beryl (Archer), whom they visit to tell her of their father’s death; and
  • repeated encounters along the road with Mike (Joseph Culp) and Tony (Quill), two young men whom the women first pick up at a gas station, later encourage at a ceilidh (where Gerard is dragooned into playing traditional country music on this cello, which he does very well), and finally meet a last time once more on the road, where it becomes clear the men plan to rape and kill them.

Dark Summer - 2 Mike and Megan applaud the country music

Mike (Joseph Culp) and Megan (Connie Nielsen) applaud Gerard’s country music jamming.

By the time the travelers reach Seattle, there’s a trail of dead bodies behind them: Winston, who managed to kill himself even though it was Dominique holding the gun; and the two murderers, who, according to the cop whose interrogation of Gerard frames the movie, Detective Davis (David), were serial killers who’d been terrorizing the highways of the nation, are likewise goners.

Dark Summer - 5 Dominique tells Gerard it's the end of the road

Dominique (Mia Kirshner) tells Gerard that this is the end of the road.

It’s a fairly far-fetched conclusion to a movie whose prime characteristic is being fairly far-fetched, and it’d be easy to dismiss Dark Summer as an inconsequential, even self-indulgent piece. Yet its quirkiness is oddly gripping, making us a part of the road trip, so that whatever hare-brained activity the two sisters get up to next somehow starts to seem perfectly normal. This effect seems to govern the behavior, too, of Gerard, who’s brilliantly played by Anglade; he adopts a fatalistic attitude to events, as if trapped on a course from which he has no escape until someone else decides to let him go. Eventually he’s so numbed by the high-pitched experiences that he barely reacts to discoveries such that Megan was all through childhood a victim of father Robert’s sexual abuse and that Robert died not of his long illness but because the sisters overdosed him with his prescribed medications.

While this is really Anglade’s movie, his two co-stars, Nielsen and Kirshner, shine as well. Kirshner is a bit too obviously dotty early on, her childlike affectations too exaggerated to be credible, but she soon settles down. Nielsen magnificently portrays a far more complex character, one who’s equally at home as the prim, picture-perfect nurse and the snarling monster prepared to take a kitchen knife to her mother.

Dark Summer - 6 Anne Archer in blazing form as the mother

Anne Archer in blazing form as the mother.

They’re backed up by some excellent support in what are mainly cameo roles. Culp Sr is gloriously seedy as the depraved judge, managing to conjure both revulsion and sympathy . . . and sometimes both at the same time. Culp Jr and Quill convince as the psychos. Langella and David have extremely small roles, but fulfill them admirably. Most memorable of all is Archer as the scatological, blasphemous, screaming, histrionically weeping, booze-sodden mother. It’s not the kind of part we’d normally associate with her, and yet she pulls it off splendidly.

Dark Summer - 8 closer
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On Amazon.com: Innocents [DVD]

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6 thoughts on “Dark Summer (2000)

  1. Don’t know this film at all. But definitely looks like my cup of tea! An odd amalgam of John Dahl and David Lynch by the sound of it – and what a cast! One I will have to put into my ‘to watch’ in-tray.

    • Thanks for dropping by, David. Yes, it does have a sort of Lynchian feel to it. It’s one of those movies that I think people who like French neonoirs will enjoy while people who subscribe to the Hollywood formula might find it . . . I dunno: unsettling, perhaps.

      If you do get round to watching it, please do report back — I’d love to hear your opinion!

    • Thanks for dropping by, Tracy!

      When I used the term “unsettling” above I was meaning that people who expected movie narratives to follow the Hollywood template might find themselves disconcerted by Dark Summer: it’s a movie that really does seem aimed at the international audience rather than our domestic one.

  2. Alas I too have not seen this, but am most intrigued by your excellent review! Sounds like the acting is quite good across the board and that the narrative builds slowly to the striking sequences.

    • Many thanks for dropping by, Sam! The movie’s an odd little number, but I’m surprised it never garnered more attention on release. Bad marketing, I’d guess. Of course, it’s one of those that’s not going to be to everyone’s taste. Even so . . .

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