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Review: ‘A Dark Place’ Portrays Mental Illness with a Compassionate Touch

Review: ‘A Dark Place’ Portrays Mental Illness with a Compassionate Touch

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Simon Fellows’ A Dark Place, released theatrically on April 12, becomes a tale of obsession and the terrible secrets a small town tries to keep hidden.

Donny Devlin (Andrew Scott) is a garbageman in the former steel town of Harburgh, Pennsylvania whose life revolves around work, his ailing mom Betty (Sandra Ellis Lafferty), and his beloved daughter Wendy (Christa Beth Campbell in her first film role). When local boy Tyler Zeigler (Nolan Cook) goes missing, Donny takes a particular interest since Tyler’s father Jerry (Jason Davis) is always friendly to him when he’s on his route. Being on the spectrum, people in town tend to not take Donny seriously at all. But that changes after Tyler is found dead in the creek, and his mother Patty (Kate Forbes) mentions to Donny that her son was too fearful to have gone exploring and ultimately drowning. She suspects foul play. And now so does Donny. 

Because Sherriff Mooney (Michael Rose) closes the investigation into Tyler’s death faster than the boy was even missing, Donny decides to take matters into his own hands. He has an ally in the police department, Officer Max Himmler (Griff Furst), who tells Donny that there hadn’t even been an autopsy and in cases like these you could almost guarantee some kind of abuse in the boy’s past.

In the meantime, Donny is harassed by townspeople telling him to leave well enough alone. And two masked men even try to stage Donny’s suicide by holding him at gunpoint over the town’s tallest bridge, forcing him to jump. But Officer Max isn’t Donny’s only friend in Harburgh. His gun-obsessed work colleague Donna (Bronagh Waugh) shows up in the nick of time to scare the goons away. She also finally acknowledges that the questions Donny is asking are causing too big a reaction in the town to be a coincidence. Donna begins doing some digging of her own that changes the course of Donny’s life, and town history.

Beautifully shot with an ominous score to fit the severity of the story, A Dark Place is an intimate portrait of a non-neurotypical man whose obsessive tendencies take him down a dark path toward the light of justice for the dead boy. We never hear what exactly Donny’s diagnosis is. Being from such a small town, he might not have been diagnosed at all. His occasional fits of rage are in stark contrast to his keen sense of perception, not just of human behavior, but also his ability to put all the available clues together on his own. Andrew Scott’s performance is beautifully controlled as he goes from neurotypically passing into the manic phase of his illness and obsession, and then back to lucidity as he solves the crime. This is a really great moment of representation for people suffering from mental illness. Because Donny doesn’t quite cue to social pressure, he persists in getting to the bottom of the case even as he does some truly disturbing things in the process. He is the only one involved with the guts to see the truth come out, partially because he is on the margins of his own community.

“What are you trying to do? Give your shitty life some meaning?” Officer Max asks him. On one level he is. On another level, his mental illness has given him an ethical framework that he absolutely cannot avoid until he finds all the missing pieces and puts them together.

I particularly loved Donny’s relationship with his daughter Wendy, who simply adores her father and only sees him as a hero figure in her life. She does not care what people in town say about him. To her, he’s perfect and she loves him deeply. When Donny is with her, you can’t even tell he’s mentally ill. Their love is so pure, and it was beautiful to see a mentally ill person presented as a functioning parent. This was in stark contrast to Wendy’s mom Linda (Denise Gough), whose hands-off parenting style and terrible taste in a boyfriend actually put Wendy at risk far more than the one stereotypes would suggest her mentally ill father poses.

However, I, unfortunately, have to mention the white devilry at play in A Dark Place that was troubling, to say the least. Not only was the perpetrator protected by the sheriff and other people in the town — white devilry at its most grotesque — but Donny also broke the law on multiple occasions and got away with it. Because there was no autopsy, Donny takes it on himself to dig up the boy’s body and take it to the medical examiner’s office himself. This disturbing act is not followed by him getting arrested. Rather, his old high school friend who works in forensics finds a way to actually do the autopsy which leads to the disgusting town secret being exposed. Just take a beat and imagine if a person of color rolled up to the M.E.’s office with the illegally exhumed body of a child in the bed of their truck, wrapped in a crochet blanket. That person would spend at least a night or two in jail — if not months — until the situation was clarified and their mental illness was also taken into account if it even gets acknowledged. But the white anti-hero — mentally ill or not — always gets a pass. From law enforcement, and society in general. This racist double standard is almost as disturbing as the town secret. It’s too close to real life for comfort.

The white devilry aside, A Dark Place is a solid small-town crime drama with excellent writing and moving performances. The subject matter might be too difficult for people to handle, especially after this year that has brought us Surviving R. Kelly, Abducted in Plain Sight, and Leaving Neverland. But if you can handle it, watching a functional mentally ill man portrayed so three-dimensionally — and as a dark hero — is really worth navigating the other more sinister aspects of A Dark Place. It’s rare to see mental illness portrayed with humanity and compassion at all. A Dark Place accomplishes this feat with empathy and grace.

A Dark Place opens on April 12th.

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