Darkness Before Dawn” plays like a hard-edged update of”The Days of Wine and Roses.” This fact-based television movie, the story of a husband and wife who reinforce one another’s heroin addiction, feels entirely authentic and boasts an admirable lack of sentimentality.
The film has a documentary-like texture; it is a stark, non-judgmental look at a self-destructive couple. Their sobering story is told efficiently and compellingly, without melodrama or any hint of corny uplift.
Mary Ann Thompson (Meredith Baxter) is a single mother, a nurse at a Las Vegas methadone clinic-and a prescription-drug addict. At work, she meets and rapidly falls in love with slick, handsome recovering heroine addict Guy Grand (Stephen Lang).
Guy sees her as his salvation, and for a time it appears he is right. They get married; he finds a job. But soon he’s emptying out her bank account to purchase drugs, and she’s providing excuses for his behavior.
Guy returns to sobriety after a stay in the clinic, but it’s only a matter of time before he gets back on heroin, and this time he takes the all-too-willing Mary Ann along with him.
One of the impressive things about Karen Hall’s script is how it manages to stay riveting even as it accurately portrays the rather monotonous life of an addict. The Grands’ life follows a depressing pattern, in which sobriety alternates withdrug abuse, and the partner who happens to be straight at any given time tries to help the other get over the addiction.
Their story is consistently compelling, however, because the characters are so well-drawn and the script avoids obvious, cliched scenes.
The only misstep is the superficial and rather clunky attempt to locate the root of Mary Ann’s addiction in her childhood traumas. While the idea of reaching back into the past is appropriate, the flashbacks seem out of place, and the second of them is banal.
Under the sensitive direction of John Patterson, Baxter nicely underplays her character; even the inevitable withdrawal scenes are free of hysteria (and all the more moving because of it). Lang is totally convincing as a smooth-talking operator and as a genuinely frightened man who somehow finds the strength to clean up his act. The effective, low-key musical score is by Peter Manning Robinson.