By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
Non-linear narratives date back centuries to the likes of Homer’s Iliad, the Sanskrit epic Mahābhārata, and the medieval poem Beowulf. Since then, non-linear films have become largely commonplace on the big screen with the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan being particularly fond of distorting the order of events for dramatic effect. Out-of-order storytelling, however, has the potential to go awry when misused or overused. This is not the case though in Strange Darling, a meticulously structured thriller premiering at this year’s Fantastic Fest.
Strange Darling comes from writer/director JT Mollner and follows a young woman (played by The Goldfinch‘s Willa Fitzgerald) who is on the run from an attacker (played by Smile‘s Kyle Gallner) in the Oregon wilderness. On the surface, this isn’t a particularly novel or gripping concept, but masterful construction of a suspenseful and unpredictable story coupled with gorgeous cinematography make Strange Darling one of the surprises of the year.
Strange Darling begins with an ominous opening crawl that explains how the following film is a dramatization of events that occurred involving one of the United States’ most prolific serial killers (it’s unclear, however, if this is a Texas Chain Saw Massacre-type situation in which the filmmakers falsely suggest their story is based on true events). The opening text reveals that the story will unfold in six chapters before suddenly beginning with Chapter 3. In less capable hands this manipulation of the ordering of events may fall flat or feel unnecessary, but that’s not the case with Mollner and his film.
The non-linear structure of the film’s story adds immense intrigue and suspense to a story that, at first, may appear to be a straightforward chase-and-run thriller. The film concludes in such a different place than it begins that to discuss the plot in any greater detail would be a disservice to the sheer unpredictability of this story.
Unlike select other non-linear stories, Strange Darling never becomes unwieldy or convoluted. In part due to the text that introduces each of the film’s six chapters, the film always remains approachable, which allows the viewer to feel closer to the emotions of the story and less wrapped up in the temporal ordering of events. In turn, what is experienced is a story refreshingly simple in concept yet intelligent in its narrative structure and emotionally intelligent in the themes it explores.
Willa Fitzgerald, known for her roles in The Goldfinch and Reacher, is the lead of the film and delivers a truly Oscar-worthy performance (although one that is unlikely to be recognized by the Academy). The film begins with Fitzgerald’s character running toward the camera in slow motion. Her ear is clearly injured and she is desperately scared of whoever is chasing her. From those first frames and onward, Fitzgerald commands the screen with such dynamism and versatility in her performance. The range of emotions Fitzgerald conveys, especially the panic and pain she experiences, feel so realistic that Strange Darling becomes a disturbingly visceral and immersive film to watch.
Alongside Fitzgerald is Kyle Gallner (Smile, Dinner in America), who is the attacker pursuing Fitzgerald’s character in the Oregon wilderness. Gallner is also extremely effective here, in a role that requires more silence and stoicism. The film also features Ed Begley Jr. (Better Call Saul, A Mighty Wind) and Barbara Hershey (Black Swan, Insidious) in brief, yet vital supporting roles. Begley Jr. and Hershey are similarly fantastic, but make no mistake – this is firmly Fitzgerald’s film and everything is done in service of her performance and the journey throughout the film.
Coupling a range of fantastic performances is stunning cinematography. Surprisingly shot in 35mm by Giovanni Ribisi, Strange Darling is a gorgeous film from start to finish. The manipulation of colors and the contrast between the film’s outward brightness and disturbing undertones create an almost surreal feel to the film. Mollner, whose previous directorial effort was the revisionist Western Outlaws and Angels, works hand-in-hand with Ribsi to deliver the rare disturbing movie that you simply can’t keep your eyes off of.
Strange Darling, an intense thriller premiering at this year’s Fantastic Fest, is one of the surprises of the year to date. Employing a meticulously crafted non-linear narrative structure, JT Mollner’s film unfolds with incredible intrigue and suspense that takes the audience on a rollercoaster ride with seemingly endless twists and turns. Willa FItzgerald delivers a commanding lead performance, while stunning visuals from cinematographer Giovanni Ribisi create an ethereal tone to what is a disturbing and impactful film. If you’re looking for a nail-biting and wildly unpredictable thriller to watch, look no further than Strange Darling.