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Film Review: “Wander Darkly” Is an Exciting, Exhausting Fever Dream

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 10th, 2020

Film poster: “Wander Darkly”

Wander Darkly (Tara Miele, 2020) 2 out of 4 stars.

What do you get when you combine a ghost story with melodrama? Wander Darkly, a beautifully shot and edited narrative mess, overwrought to the extreme but often intriguing. Directed by Tara Miele (Gone Missing) with an eye for the mystically elliptical (let’s call it “mystiptical”), if not for story, the film tells the tale of Adrienne (Sienna Miller, 21 Bridges) and Matteo (Diego Luna, Flatliners), a warring couple with a newborn child who, right at the start, suffer severe injuries in a car crash. Adrienne sees herself die, time rushing forward and transporting her from hospital to funeral to her daughter’s teenage years before sending her back to the ostensible present, where everyone strives to convince her she is still very much alive. For the length of the movie, she will refuse to accept this fact, until a sudden revelation in the final moments upends her world yet again. The mise-en-scène is impressive, but that doesn’t make any of this pleasant to behold.

Miele is an accomplished stylist, her compositions and transitions carrying us in and out of dreamscapes and fantasies, with reality never more than an illusion. If this technique sounds like a nightmare, that’s because it feels like one, only without the relief of a sudden awakening. As such, we completely enter the mindset of Adrienne, which has its storytelling appeal, yet does far more than engender empathy. With very little to ground us in the truth of this particular universe, our lack of tether leads to a kind of cinematic vertigo, inducing mental (and perhaps actual) nausea. Despite the motion sickness, we have to watch in a kind of awe, so effective is Miele at throwing us into the maelstrom of uncertainty.

Sienna Miller in WANDER DARKLY ©Lionsgate

Still, once we get a handle on technique, these flourishes dazzle less, instead merely reminding us that underneath it all is a plot not so hard to decipher. There are three possibilities: Adrienne is dead, she is not, she is somewhere in between. If either of the latter two, then these hallucinations are all just effects of a massive concussion and/or other trauma. And then our minds whirl, figure it out, and the ending reveal becomes far less of a surprise.

Miller and Luna give of their all, emotionally raw, throughout. Their work matches the frenetic camera and cuts, shot for shot and edit for edit, in sync with Miele’s feverish vision. There’s only so long that we can survive these heated temperatures, however, and admirable as is the effort, it is also exhausting and, ultimately, not all that interesting. Until we reach that realization, though, the journey is worth the pain, painful and exciting, both.

Diego Luna in WANDER DARKLY ©Lionsgate
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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