Darwin — a funny name for a city on the brink of extinction. “This was no town to raise kids in,” says one resident of the arid Death Valley enclave, where “whiskey’s for drinkin’, and water’s for fightin’ over.” With “Darwin,” Swiss director Nick Brandestini affectionately documents roughly a third of the town’s dwindling population — at 35, their number is two fewer than when he began in 2009. The same curiosity that attracted Brandestini has already made this niche title a novelty item on the fest circuit, collecting awards as it exposes these hermits to the world.
A sign that reads “No services ahead” greets visitors as they roll into town, erected to steer nosy outsiders away from a place that values its privacy. That didn’t deter Brandestini, who earns the locals’ confidence and gets them to open up on camera. It’s no surprise to find artists and eccentrics among them, such as Kathy Goss, too old to be a beatnik, too young to be a hippie. Less obvious are Hank and Connie Jones, who’ve adopted their own form of paganism, or their transgendered son, Ryal.
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Many have retreated to this remote desert outpost to get away from the drugs, violence and commotion of the outside world (though Charles Manson was captured in nearby Barker Ranch); others came to find work, back when Darwin was a thriving mining commune. Today, the only job in town is that of postmaster, and the others seem to be rethinking their isolationist strategy. With no church, no school and no kids, Darwin has a local history that survives almost exclusively in the community’s collective memory; details about the late Greville Healey, who legend holds was “apparently a really amazing man at one point,” are amusingly incomplete.
So the documentary serves to record a way of life that’s evaporating faster than the water. Drawn to the dusty community with the same bemused respect countless European directors have paid tumbleweed American towns over the years — from Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas” to Emir Kusturica’s “Arizona Dream” — Brandestini operates within a well-established tradition of romanticizing the new West.
To domestic viewers, Darwin may look like just another dime-a-dozen collection of rusty trailers and empty dreams baking under the desert sun. Through Old World eyes, however, these misfit characters take on a certain nobility, celebrated for a proud independence typically mistaken for failure.
For that reason, “Darwin” will pay quite differently abroad than it does closer to home, where auds can fill in what Brandestini leaves out: While eccentric, these characters are hardly unique and can be found scattered throughout the American Southwest. Just because Brandestini’s camera lingers on classic cars, peeling signs and other mid-century relics, that doesn’t mean the town doesn’t watch reality TV and surf the Web like the rest of their countrymen.
With one foot in the present and another somewhere in a distant past, Darwin is a place where laws don’t always apply and the denizens are well-armed, though it’s hard to tell against whom. In place of green grass and white picket fences, the gravel lots are marked by septic tanks and assorted bric-a-brac; while not exactly scenic, the austere conditions pack an undeniable poetry as seen through Brandestini’s desaturated lens. Complementing the visuals is Michael Brook’s beautiful score, an elegy for a lifestyle that’s not quite dead.