Dark, dark humor and darker, darker themes prowl and glower through the desiccated cornfields and barren dustbowls of Kazakh director Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s bleakly dazzling police procedural “A Dark-Dark Man.” Premiering in San Sebastian and going on to play at the Busan Film Festival, this seventh feature from Yerzhanov, whose last film “The Gentle Indifference of the World” bowed in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section, is a staggeringly controlled, slow-burn scorcher of a crime thriller.
The opening salvo is already not for the faint of heart: A police detective is examining the dead body of a small boy in an abandoned outbuilding beside a sinister cornfield. With offhand, practiced weariness, the detective doctors the scene, calling in slow-witted local misfit Pekuar (Teoman Khos), bribing him with chocolate bars to masturbate into a small cup, and carefully placing the semen on the dead body, thus framing the harmless, gormless Pekuar for the crime.
Back at the station, he orders his younger partner, Bezkat (a charismatically granite-faced Daniar Alshinov), fresh from torturing a confession out of another arrestee, to kill Pekuar and make it look like an accident, effectively closing the case. But Bezkat’s mission is foiled, temporarily at least, by the arrival of Ariana (Dinara Baktybaeva), a reporter from the city who insists on shadowing the investigation into the boy’s death, which forces Bezkat to actually conduct one.
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Ariana, already an outsider in her neat city clothes (“Coming here like on safari,” growls one hostile local) and barely protected by her status as a journalist, is usually the only woman among various permutations of disdainful thugs, desperate lowlifes and crooked cops. But she sticks with steely will to her belief that the crime is linked to the murders of several other unwanted orphans in the area. All of those cases were also “solved,” when a handy suspect was apprehended, who then, even handier, “committed suicide” while in custody. She and Bezkat, whose sense of decency is perhaps hibernating rather than fully defunct, slowly become allies, though the frostiness of mutual distrust remains between them until an unexpectedly moving coda, following the film’s bravura, bloodbath finale.
Who is actually responsible for the deaths is of less interest to Yerzhanov and co-writer Roelof Jan Minneboo than the corrupt institutions and compromised individuals who cover for him. So the plot, featuring cops, criminals, politicians, henchmen, gamblers and gangsters between whom the lines of morality are blurry indeed, is wildly convoluted, in the best Raymond Chandler tradition. But the film offsets the confusion with the clarity and originality of its imagery: Spare, symmetrical widescreen vistas of the forbiddingly empty landscapes or the unfriendly nearby aul (rural Kazakh village) backdrop the hesitant, semi-theatrical interactions between the characters, while DP Aydar Sharipov’s crisp, low-contrast, endlessly surprising framing seems to invent whole new ways of looking into and around a scene. Sometimes, taking full advantage of the film’s slow rhythms, the camera moves almost imperceptibly in, subtly re-balancing the elements in the frame so a figure in the background starts to loom large, or a bit of business — like the manipulation of evidence — is momentarily foregrounded before passing out of shot, as though the camera, like the characters, were simply indifferent to the injustice it is witnessing.
The mood of escalating menace is countered by a mischievously heightened sense of the absurd. Two policemen waiting by their car practice their swimming strokes on dry land; Pekuar, misunderstanding the task, pushes a stalled car from the wrong side; Ariana plays a game of Blind Man’s Buff with the local raggedy kids. Even the gory final showdown is shot wittily, its grand, redemptive drama contrasted with the messy physics of grappling with an adversary in a slippery, blood-slicked corridor. And as a final flourish, all of this happens under Galymzhan Moldanazar’s anachronistically hip score, in which bouncy electro basslines and swarming synths lend an edge of ’80s Giorgio Moroder-style urban cool to rural Kazakhstan.
“A Dark-Dark Man,” named after the childish rhyme sing-songed by a blindfolded Ariana, is in some ways reminiscent of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.” It’s a deliciously pessimistic testament, for those on its deliberate, low-frequency wavelength, to the power of an unapologetically auteurist, art-house approach to genre. But like Bezkat catching sight of himself in the mirror while in the act of killing a man, Yerzhanov’s twisted film is also gratifyingly self-aware, an ironic and knowing transposition of urban crime thriller archetypes — the straight-out-of-Jim Thompson cast of venal characters; the sleazy neon score; the heady air of fatalism — into the last place on earth you’d expect them to flourish so daringly, so disturbingly and so very darkly.