Grief is a powerful emotion. Once caught in its grip, it can become an insurmountable task to break free, and leaves those that do irrevocably changed. It’s this theme of grief, and how far one is willing to risk their very soul to escape it that writer/director Liam Gavin explores in his feature debut.
Catherine Walker plays Sophia, a woman so darkened by grief that she enlists an occultist to guide her through a black magic ritual that takes a minimum of six months to complete. After meticulous pre-planning, Sophia and the occultist lock themselves inside a remote manor with a salt seal for protection and begin the arduous task of conducting their dark ceremony. Sophia must follow every explicit instruction, no matter how tortuous, for failure can result in very deadly consequences.
The dynamics between Sophia and her occultist guide, Solomon, provide the focal point of the film. Sophia’s grief is tangible, and it manifests as a burning, quiet rage. Clueless in the dark arts, both she and the audience relies on Solomon’s expertise to explain the rules of the ritual. Solomon, played by Steve Oram, is likely the last person you’d wish to be locked inside with for months on end with his prickly, acerbic demeanor. Part of his standoffishness is by necessity, as their very souls are on the line, but it’s also his very core being. Sophia and Solomon are fire and ice, and it provides a very captivating dynamic. The tension between them threatens to boil over multiple times, and it heightens the already high stakes.
Building upon the main characters’ tension, Gavin crafts an unnerving atmosphere. Utilizing a drab setting, Gavin makes good use of wide shots to create suspense. His framing of scenes creates a sense of dread and foreboding, which is further exacerbated by the film’s unsettling soundtrack and sound design. Much credit should go to cinematographer Cathal Watters, as well, for the film’s beautiful, almost ethereal visual aesthetic.
The mysterious and mysticism behind the ritual itself becomes enthralling; Gavin keeps it intentionally vague and so the lure of the unknown keeps the viewer hooked. It eventually crescendos into one of the most ambitious, poetic climaxes in recent memory. It’s a jaw dropping finale that unfortunately lacks the emotional resonance that would cement this as something truly spectacular. While the vagueness of the black magic works, the ambiguous history of his characters proves the film’s undoing. We know Sophia has a tragic past, and while the bare bones of it are laid out over time, it’s never fleshed out enough to truly endear Sophia to the viewer. We root for her simply because she’s the audience proxy and the more likeable character of the two leads. The massive tonal shift also creates a disconnect.
Liam Gavin makes an impressive debut with his haunting tale of black magic. An isolated, poignant tale of grief and darkness held together by captivating performances by Catherine Walker and Steve Oram, A Dark Song offers many chilling moments. The vague character work and tonal shift undermines the audaciousness of the bold finale, but it’s admirable nonetheless. Beautiful, tragic, and often chilling, A Dark Song reminds us why we shouldn’t mess with black magic.
A Dark Song [FF Review]