'Wander Darkly' may have attempted to reinvent the wheel, but it didn’t have to succeed to roll along just fine.
- ▪️Sienna Miller and Diego Luna have great on-screen chemistry.
- ▪️Compelling central hook.
- ▪️Impressively disorienting editing.
- ▪️Characters are too thinly sketched.
- ▪️The big twist isn't too hard to see coming.
You certainly can’t fault Wander Darkly for being unoriginal. While still being a fairly traditional romantic drama, writer-director Tara Miele's film uses a high concept hook that is fairly unusual for a genre that is traditionally very grounded, even if its reality is melodramatic. And it works! It’s a film that gets you to root for a troubled romance as the two leads pick up the pieces of their dysfunctional relationship. But it’s also nothing extraordinary in that regard, even with its unique selling point.
Adrienne (Sienna Miller) and Matteo (Diego Luna) are going through a rough patch. The unmarried couple just bought a house together to raise their newborn daughter, but the stress of doing so has unearthed some persistent issues in their relationship that compels them to make mandatory date nights out on the town. It’s during an argument on one of these date nights that they get into a car crash, leaving Adrienne in a state of shock that lasts well after she is released from the hospital. She believes that she is dead, dissociating from her life and the people around her in the belief that the accident killed her. Matteo steps in to guide her back to life by revisiting the highs and lows of their lives together.
This is accomplished through a marriage of the past and present, a masterfully disorienting trick of editing that transports the couple to new locales and allows them to break the fourth wall of their own memories as they fuss over details of the experience and muse on their thoughts at the time of the scene. These breaks in reality are presented with an almost stream-of-consciousness mentality, as Adrienne and Matteo piece together the moments that made them fall in love and the arguments that made them risk losing one another. You’ll get the gorgeous romance of a seaside getaway, only for it to be undercut by a recurring memory of Matteo’s flirtations with another woman and Adrienne’s suspicions of infidelity. The resulting film is purposely arhythmic, jarring in its exploration of Adrienne's psyche but consistently tethered by Matteo's guiding hand.
Unfortunately, Adrienne and Matteo are not terribly interesting people to go on this journey with. One suspects that this is at least partially by design so that Adrienne and Matteo can be avatars of romantic self-projection for the audience who would seek this film out, but we don’t get much deeper into their personalities than the heteronormative templates they inhabit. Adrienne’s career is a threat to Matteo’s masculine pride as he invests his time woodworking in the garage. Matteo is jealous of Adrienne’s interactions with another man despite having his own friendships with women. Matteo and Adrienne’s mom (Beth Grant) can’t get along. At least Miller and Luna are good enough performers at selling the material that the shallowness of the characterizations isn’t distracting, but when you stop to think about who these people actually are beyond their archetypal roles it’s hard to draw much more than a blank.
Furthermore, for as immersive as the reality-bending theatrics of their shared memory palace are, Adrienne’s persistent protestations that she is haunted by a specter of death telegraph a little too heavily that a twist is waiting for us at the end of the tale, and it’s not an especially hard one to piece together from context. Others may find themselves engrossed enough with the proceedings to be surprised, but it’s not even an especially clever narrative turn, despite recontextualizing the film’s central themes with nuanced subtlety.
Wander Darkly might be a little too underwritten for its own good, but it’s still a solid romantic drama. The time-hopping plot contortions and the necessarily inventive editing make for a visually engaging experience, even if the ultimate resolution to the story leaves one feeling wanting. And there’s no denying that Miller and Luna have great screen chemistry, so if that’s all you’re looking for, then there you have it. Wander Darkly may have attempted to reinvent the wheel, but it didn’t have to succeed to roll along just fine.
Wander Darkly releases on VOD on December 11, 2020.
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