Cinema can be used effectively to educate audiences as to corruption within regimes or organisations. It can highlight and explain the intricacies and subterfuge involved in cover ups, crises and corruption. Hell, Michael Moore has built an entire career on it. From All The President’s Men to Spotlight; from Erin Brockovich to Serpico, cinema has been able to recreate the steps taken by those real life heroes out to expose nefarious goings on.
Of course, all of these biopics have their basis very firmly in real stories; real issues. And perhaps that is why they are so effective and shocking. They have a clear story to tell or narrative to follow.
Writer-director Tracy Lucca is behind Dark State, an entirely fictionalised account of an investigative journalist out to expose a cult-like organisation with reaches in Hollywood, the military, big pharma and a number of other influential sectors. And perhaps, because this is an entirely imagined scenario, this is why Dark State fails to draw you in.
The film opens with a bold title card, which states that “The Devil doesn’t come dressed in a red cape and pointy horns. He comes as everything you’ve ever wished for.” The title itself appears to be in Times New Roman – and that should tell you everything about the 90 minute ride you’re about to endure.
Dark State centres around investigative journalist, Alicia (K. O’Rourke), who has returned to her hometown of Hammontown and her old job at the local newspaper. She’s picked up the story of her childhood friend turned Hollywood ingenue, Katie, who is the sole survivor of a recent car crash. The others in the car – a former military intelligence officer with a penchant for mind control; a serial killer; and a multi-millionaire playboy from the world of big pharma – have all died. But just what were those four unlikely bedfellows all doing together in the first place?
From the offset, the film feels rather amateurish. And this isn’t a slight on anything that isn’t a Marvel blockbuster. There are lots of good indie movies out there. It’s just that this isn’t one of them. The cutaways feel like a PowerPoint transition. The soundtrack is so loud that sometimes you can’t hear the dialogue. There are lots of odd “filler” shots of traffic or people in restaurants. The camera work is also all over the place. Tight close ups are incredibly shaky. Mid-shots look like they’ve been shot from below meaning that – if one character is standing and another is sitting – half of the smaller person’s face is out of shot. Entire conversations are filmed from the back of the speaker’s head.
There is also too much reliance on cliches and tropes – most notably a research montage complete with yards of red string – both visually and in terms of script – someone actually brings a guitar to visit Katie in hospital to signify that they are in a band, at one point. The dialogue attempts to sound complex and mysterious, but it never really delivers. There are lots of gazes into the mid-distance and talk about rich people stepping on the “little folk” or everything coming “at a price”. There are attempts at grounding the film in reality – references to Weinstein and Epstein, for example – but it just feels shoe-horned in.
The plot is also really all over the place. It’s still unclear as to whether the plot Katie was involved in was a satanic cult, something to do with the government, an attempt at mind control or an actual pact with the Devil. All of these ideas were tossed around without consequence. The highlight, however, was the super clunky way in which Alicia’s entire back story was revealed. Adorno – a man constantly bathed in red light to let you know he’s evil – breaks into her home (cue no reaction from Alicia) and just word vomits her entire life. It’s odd, it doesn’t move the plot forward and it’s not as menacing as it thinks.
The lack of menace and mystique also stems from the cast themselves. No one ever acts frightened or threatened, despite hints at a nefarious global cult operating within the town. With the exception of newspaper editor, Rusty (Nicholas Baroudi), it all feels a bit cringy and “Acting with a capital A.” Not everyone can be Meryl Streep, of course, but when almost everyone in the cast feels like they are reading their lines off their hands, it is really noticeable.
Honestly, Dark State feels like a really bad Reddit thread. There are far too many ideas thrown out there and nothing is ever followed through. Is it a cult? Is it the government? Why is a former child star living in a run down shed? Why did Rusty ask for a selfie after he and Alicia kissed? Nothing is explained. But, if you’ve made it to the end, chances are you will be so desperate for the credits to roll, that you won’t really care.
Dark State comes to theatres on March 19, 2021 and to TVOD/Digital Platforms on May 4, 2021