Super Dark Times (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
There are glimmers of great ideas underneath the somber, nearly inaccessible overcoat of “Super Dark Times,” a paranoid dramatic thriller begging for stronger writing so its story could be taken to the next level. While capable of putting the audience in a specific mindset, of a teenager involved in cover-up after an accidental murder of a classmate, what results is a work that comes across as student-film at times with its heavy-handed symbolism and static shots of quiet desperation. Even those looking for character studies will be challenged.
Performances by Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan, who play best friends Zach and Josh, respectively, are highly watchable. They look and act like real teenagers living in upstate New York who just so happen to find themselves in a tragic, unfathomable situation. The script by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski requires the actors to play quiet, almost reclusive types but still remain distinct individuals. Notice how Zach and Josh speak as though they are whispering sometimes, often looking down or avoiding eye contact, as to mask their true selves from one another despite the fact that they are nearly inseparable. They think they know each other, but facing death together shakes their most basic foundations.
Less enjoyable are the attempts to look inside Zach’s nightmares and hallucinations. While visually creative and offering genuinely creepy images on occasion, one cannot help but wonder why we need to see what goes on inside the protagonist’s mind when it is apparent he is tortured by his guilt that stems from inaction. As a result, these scenes feel as though they function as padding, something I expect from tyro filmmakers who do not yet possess a confidence in the way they have established their characters. This approach can work in more experienced hands with a far richer, more elegant script.
The photography is quite confronting. For example, right from the opening scene we observe a classroom in a chaotic state: broken glass all over the floor, chairs and desks out of place, droplets and trails of blood leading up to a carcass. As the room is filled by authorities, we hear nearly nothing. Instead, close-ups fill the screen. We look at the teachers’ and students’ eyes, how emotions contain a mix of fear and excitement. We look at authorities investigating the scene of a crime, their utter disbelief that something like this could happen in their tranquil suburban bubble. Is it a sign of things to come?
For a first-time director, Kevin Phillips has made a decent picture with interesting ideas about male friendships, loyalty, and self-preservation. However, these ideas are not explored in such a way that is meaningful and engaging throughout—at least not on the level of great pictures such as Tim Hunter’s “River’s Edge” and Jacob Aaron Estes’ “Mean Creek” where escalating tension comes hand-in-hand with razor-focus character studies. Phillips, however, has an aptitude for establishing a certain look and mood. I look forward to his next foray.