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Film Review: ‘A Dark Place’

Andrew Scott plays an intellectually disabled man investigating a child's death in this offbeat but middling murder mystery.

A Dark Place review
Courtesy, Shout Studios

As much a character study as it is a murder mystery, “A Dark Place” is a little under-complicated in both departments. This drama (formerly shown as “Steel Country”) stars Andrew Scott as a small-town Pennsylvania man on the autism spectrum who becomes obsessed with a local child’s seemingly accidental death, ruffling feathers as he conducts his own guileless “investigation.”

One of three top-billed Irish thespians capably playing Yanks here for Brit director Simon Fellows, Scott offers a compelling turn that easily carries the film, as it must. Still, the generally well-acted and competently crafted film should have more depth and punch, given the inherently powerful themes (mental disability, child abuse, etc.) it places center-stage. The result is diverting enough, yet ends up more a mildly offbeat time-filler than something memorable.

Donnie Devlin (Scott) is a 30-ish sanitation worker in Harburgh, Pa., spending days driving a garbage truck, and nights at home with his elderly mother Betty (Sandra Ellis Lafferty), a well-meaning Bible thumper. He has no real friends beyond co-worker Donna (Bronagh Wagh), who perhaps harbors more complex feelings toward him — feelings to which he’s thoroughly oblivious. He also has an 11-year-old daughter, Wendy (Christa Campbell), and they get along great. However, Donnie doesn’t mix so well with the mom Wendy lives with, Linda (Denise Gough), who’s no winning personality herself but bitterly resents the fact that one drunken night’s fling has forever tied her to this misfit manchild.

It is perhaps parental concern, or maybe something else, that particularly troubles Donnie when he learns that a missing 6-year-old boy has been found drowned in the river. The police immediately close the book on any consideration of foul play, considering the tragedy a solo-playtime accident. As Donnie is offering condolences to the stricken mother, a truck-route client he barely knows, she blurts out that her son would never have gone “exploring” in the woods as police assume — he was “afraid of everything,” she says.

Nonetheless, Donnie encounters hostility from cops and everyone else when he starts asking insinuating questions about the dead child’s general circumstances. Donnie is not at all clever or stealthy, so immediately the whole town — and the grieving parents — know he’s nosing around. Soon, discouragement turns into outright threats, which only reinforce his suspicion that there’s some hidden, darker truth being the incident. Trying to solve a “crime” whose existence no one else believes in, he drifts across the line into reckless criminal behavior himself.

Director Fellows and his principal collaborators, notably DP Marcel Zyskind, come up with a fairly flavorful Rust Belt atmosphere — especially given that, for tax-incentive purposes, the movie was actually shot in and around Griffin, Ga. But while “A Dark Place” moves along at a decent clip, it’s less successful at summoning up any real suspense, or even narrative urgency. Brendan Higgins’ first produced screenplay has a strong premise, but the film works things out in relatively perfunctory terms both psychologically and plot-wise.

It seems inevitable that as clumsy as his methods are, Donnie will indeed prove everyone wrong and find a culprit, though the extent to which the town’s powers-that-be have knowingly protected that perp remain murky. The primary feeling the movie communicates is discomfort, because our protagonist is so hapless, and his actions are so easily read as inappropriate or even suspicious by others. What tension there is here derives mostly from the fear that he’ll get punched — or killed — for his admittedly somewhat creepy amateur sleuthing.

Scott, whose versatility in various media has been demonstrated in roles from Professor Moriarty to Hamlet, does a fine job detailing a character whose precise diagnostic condition is kept vague. (It’s the film’s press kit that identifies Donnie as autistic, not the film itself.) Our protagonist is sufficiently slow-witted that it’s a little surprising he has a driver’s license, but alert enough to be aware of and frustrated by his own limitations, as well as the truth of how others see him. He is not a stereotypically sweet-natured person of below-average intellect; rather he’s frequently stubborn and peevish — yet Scott’s performance lends him sympathetic poignancy. For the most part, the script doesn’t make the character suddenly “articulate” when moral speechifying is called for, though there are a couple of moments that are borderline inauthentic.

Fellow Irelanders Wagh and Gough are convincing as (mom aside) the only women who are more or less in Donnie’s life, while principal male supporting characters are credibly played by Griff Furst, Andrew Masset and Michael Rose, among others. Technical and design aspects are well-turned, though the film could have used something more evocative and distinctive than the rather generic thriller score credited to John Hardy Music.

Film Review: ‘A Dark Place’

Reviewed online, San Francisco, March 28, 2019. Running time: 89 MIN.

  • Production: (U.K.-U.S.) A Shout! Studios release (U.S.) of a Zero Gravity Management, Bedlam Film, Motion Picture Capital, Cuckoo Lane production. Producers: Mark Williams, Tai Duncan, Gareth Ellis-Unwin, Leon Clarance. Executive producers: Lee Vandermolen, Laure Vaysse, Jo Monk, Deepak Nayar.
  • Crew: Director: Simon Fellows. Screenplay: Brendan Higgins. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Marcel Zyskind. Editors: Chris Dickens, David Arshadi. Music: John Hardy Music.
  • With: Andrew Scott, Bronagh Wagh, Denise Gough, Michael Rose, Christa Campbell, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Andrew Massett, Griff Furst, Jason Davis, Kate Forbes, Cory Scott Allen.
  • Music By: