In Dark Horse (2011), Todd Solondz has made a film without rape, paedophilia and masturbation because, in the director’s words, “it’s always good to challenge yourself.” Toning down the shock value a notch, Solondz has produced in Dark Horse perhaps his most easily digestible feature to date, albeit one that leaves some space for the perverse and disturbing elements that are the director’s stock-in-trade.
Dark Horse charts the experiences of one Abe Wertheimer (a star-making turn by Jordan Gelber). Zipping around town in a yellow people-carrier, with obnoxiously upbeat pop as his soundtrack, this portly 35-year-old considers himself a cool, capable and desirable chap, despite the fact that he’s hardly a success story in conventional American terms, living as he does with his parents (superb Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken) - in a bedroom filled, amusingly, with Thundercats and Gremlins memorabilia - and working ineffectually in his father’s industial real-estate firm. Abe’s underlying frustrations manifest themselves in juvenile tantrums and petty squabbles with all and sundry. But he knows - or at least thinks he knows - how to turn on the charm. And when this self-satisfied fellow sets his sights on a distracted-seeming woman, Miranda (Selma Blair), whom he meets at a wedding, he’s soon approaching her with marriage in mind.
As Fernando F. Croce has noted, Dark Horse suggests Solondz’s caustic rejoinder to the endless parade of "adorable arrested development" comedies featuring the likes of Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler. There’s also a touch of Coens comedy to the movie’s tone, but the brothers can’t match Solondz for emotional insight and don’t come close to rivalling his unerring ability to capture the sheer awkwardness of human interaction on screen. Its narration unravelling as the protagonist unravels, Dark Horse takes some wonderfully confounding twists and turns as it progresses. It becomes, ultimately, a movie about an individual’s dream/fantasy life, and, in particular, an exploration of the role that other people play as protagonists in such fantasies. If the movie’s did-that-just-happen-or-not? game-playing becomes somewhat wearisome towards the climax, its shakier stretches are redeemed by a final shot of staggering eloquence and poignancy, one which beautifully transforms the fantasised into the fantasiser.