A heady brew of redemptive themes by way of Joseph Conrad, with editing and camerawork from the playbooks of Orson Welles and Sam Peckinpah, Jeff Burr’s neo-gothic WWII drama “Straight Into Darkness” ends up resisting categorization. There’s pleasure to be had in watching a period war pic made with a personal touch and with a self-conscious pedigree, but this diminishes as Burr excessively lays on themes and action. Tailor-made for festivals and war-movie cinephiles, this unusual indie work will have to battle for distribs and ancillary exposure.
Tale of two AWOL Yank soldiers running for their lives in Nazi-occupied France is by turns exciting and pretentious as it swerves to include movie, TV or literary references.
Privates Losey (Ryan Francis) and Deming (Scott MacDonald) are under arrest, but when their jeep is blown up by a mine, the prisoners escape, with Deming revealed as a bloodthirsty creep and Losey as a man of conscience.
On the run, Deming has the only gun, making Losey his prisoner. Losey has memory bursts of home life that erupt on screen in high-saturation color, in contrast to the desaturated look of much of the film.
Bits of potentially clever narrative details appear from time to time, as when Losey — who understands German — overhears Nazi soldiers complaining that, like the Yanks, they’re lost in the forest.
This hints at a dramatic face-off, but nothing happens. Another idea that lacks follow-through is Losey’s apparent psychic abilities, when he sees flashbacks of children at a bombed-out school.
A detour into horror, involving a half-crazed priest at a devastated monastery who hangs himself in a landscape that looks created by Italo horror maestro Lucio Fulci, leads to pic’s mid-point, and a change of pace.
Losey and Deming seem to find shelter at a solitary building that’s home to grizzled Deacon (David Warner) and Maria (Linda Thorson), teachers to a group of orphan kids who survived the school bombing and are now trained in combat. Ultimately, they all band together against the Nazis.
Burr displays confidence in his ability to cut between the claustrophobic interior drama and the outdoor battle as it develops into a furious firefight.
But Losey’s pre-AWOL killing of a mother and daughter during combat is so lost in a swarm of flashbacks and overworked editing, that the idea he wants to somehow atone for his sins is never as developed as intended. And Deming’s swing from homicidal maniac to sacrificial soldier is the movie’s most impossible conceit.
The glimpses of characters in intimate confrontation recall the terrific “Combat” series, while other scenes and sequences reference a long list of war movies, from “Fear and Desire” to “Cross of Iron.” Wild and fairly undisciplined use of rapid cutting and low-angle lensing reveal Burr to be an undisguised Welles fan, always laudable but not necessarily serving the film.
Francis and MacDonald have to fall back on (respectively) angelic and devilish behavior for their types, since real character never surfaces. And Warner’s and Thorson’s characters get sidetracked with flashbacks of their own.
A bigger complaint is the use of kids as tiny soldiers, who are cannon fodder for an extremely disturbing sequence that burdens the finale, threatening to reduce “Straight Into Darkness” to the level of exploitation pic.
Romanian locations are vigorously used, while escalating warfare is framed by Viorel Sergovici in lensing that ranges from muted to expressionist. Other contributions, such as Lawrence Maddox’s editing and Michael Convertino’s Gregorian Chant-tinged score, are overexcited.