Producers: Lynette Howell Taylor, Samantha Housman, Shivani Rawat and Monica Levinson Director: Tara Miele Screenplay: Tara Miele Cast: Sienna Miller, Diego Luna, Beth Grant, Brett Rice, Vanessa Bayer, Aimee Carrero, Tory Kittles, James Landry Hébert, Inde Navarrette and Olivia Popp Distributor: Lionsgate
Fine lead performances and a stylish, imaginative production aren’t quite enough to save writer-director Tara Miele’s take on a fairly familiar premise. In the end “Wander Darkly” winds up with only an illusion of profundity, or perhaps more accurately, formula masquerading as profundity.
Adrienne and Matteo (Sienna Miller and Diego Luna) are an L.A. couple with an infant daughter named Ellie and a newly-purchased house. She’s an artist, he a woodworker. But their marriage is undergoing a strain. The demands of caring for Ellie are taking a toll, especially because Matteo doesn’t get along with Adrienne’s mother Patty (Beth Grant), the only alternate babysitter. And the costs of the house are unmanageable. No wonder they’ve decided to arrange a weekly night out just to give their relationship a semblance of stability.
Unhappily on one of these, Adrienne encounters an old flame (Tory Kittles) and Matteo gets jealous. On the ride home, they bicker and get into a terrible car crash that leaves them both….well, that’s the question. Are they dead, or alive, or seriously injured? Or is one gone and the other still functioning?
Miele constructs her answers in the form of an extended hallucinatory trip, mostly from Adrienne’s perspective, of experiences or dreams past, present and occasionally future. She walks through hospital hallways and the rooms of her house, looking at Ellie as well as her own parents, Patty and Steve (Brett Rice), who talk about taking Ellie home with them. She’s an observer at her own funeral, where Matteo is called on to deliver a eulogy (though in a later scene it’s revealed that he wasn’t able to do so, much to her chagrin).
As Adrienne grows increasingly certain that she’s dead, Matteo appears to persuade her that she’s not. He encourages her to recall their time together–their first meeting, their happy times together, and less happy ones, sometimes interrupted by other women with an interest in Matteo. There’s even an imagined (or future) wedding ceremony. But she also has moments of foreboding, when she identifies with zombies or participates in what appear to be Day of the Dead celebrations She feels death all about her, perhaps represented by a hooded figure (James Landry Hébert) she recalls in a flashback at the accident scene, and is certain despite Matteo’s promptings to the contrary that she’s a ghost. At one point she projects into the future, envisioning Ellie as a troubled teen (Inde Navarrette) living with Patty.
In the end Miele resolves everything in a fashion that some viewers will regard as rather predictable and prosaic, given the effort at ambiguity and even subterfuge that she’s cultivated for an hour or so. The last act of “Walking Darkly” reduces the darkness quotient substantially by making things far more explicit than they have been up to then; even the hooded man is explained away. What had been dreamlike becomes a more straightforward portrayal of the grief that results from trauma and how it can be gradually confronted. It even develops a mawkish edge in the emphasis given to a character now played by Olivia Popp.
Nevertheless the film offers another remarkable performance by Miller, who was so strong in last year’s “American Woman,” and though Luna plays the secondary role here, his easy charm provides an excellent counterpoint to her intensity. The rest of the cast are fine, with Grant and Rice especially persuasive as Adrienne’s concerned parents. Special credit must also be given to cinematographer Christine Costa, production designer Katie Byron editors Tamara Meem and Alex O’Flinn and composer Alex Weston, who work closely with Miele to maintain an unsettling, jerky mood that grows more grounded in the final act.
“Wander Darkly” skirts the edginess invited by its premise rather than embracing it, but remains moderately interesting for its strong performances and technical polish.