Dark Was the Night
Sometimes, the old ways are best. Take an isolated town, add some weird happenings and rumors of something dangerous behind them, garnish with a troubled sheriff trying to maintain order, shake it all up and enjoy. That was the recipe that landed Tyler Hisel’s script, The Woods, on the “blacklist” of unproduced screenplays in 2009. And it’s what got director Jack Heller to turn that script into the simple but effective Dark Was the Night.
The core idea comes from an unexplained event in southwest England in 1855. The small town of Topsham woke up one February morning to find hoofprints in the night’s fresh snowfall. It wouldn’t be such a big deal, except they seemed to be walking on two legs. Weird; eerie.
Hisel transplants this to a modern small town in the rural areas of the American northeast. Maiden Woods seems to be in New York or Pennsylvania or something like that. It’s late in the winter, getting near to spring. The hunters are out for the end of a disappointing deer season, and the forest rangers are recommending evacuation in advance of a heavy late-season storm. Oh, and a team of lumberjacks just went missing from the logging operation up north that just started up recently.
In charge of this sleepy hamlet is Sheriff Paul (Kevin Durand), with the assistance of his deputy Donny (Lukas Haas), who has just arrived in town from serving on New York City’s much more stressful police force. Maiden Woods is quieter; a typical day means responding to Ron (Billy Paterson) and his complaints that someone stole one of his horses when he obviously just left the gate open. Hunters say there are no deer in the woods, and they’ve seen tracks they can’t identify. Two of them show up dead. And then a local like Earl (Nick Damici) tells Donny old stories from his “full-blood Shawnee grandmother” — Paul is less confident in Earl’s bloodlines — about things that live in the woods that the White Man doesn’t live in harmony with.
All of which is a longwinded way of saying yeah, of course there’s a creature out there that had enough sense to hide from people until the loggers came in and drove it south towards the town with nowhere to go beyond that. And now it’s in Maiden Woods at the worst possible time, when the storm is about to cut the town off even more than it already is, and when Paul’s relationships with his wife, Susan (Bianca Kajlich), and son, Adam (Ethan Khusidman), are already at the breaking point over his inability to save his other son from a tragic accident.
Durand is one of his generation’s most underrated character actors, and his performance lifts Sheriff Paul above what could have been a mere stock figure. Watching him work his way through both the evidence and his depression keeps us hooked through the film’s slow burn leading up to the eventual confrontation. It’s a long, tense ride, and the payoff at the end is as somber and muted as cinematographer Ryan Samul’s desaturated color palette.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.
This review also appears on Punch Drunk Critics.