How we handle pain, grief and tragedy – visceral, raw emotions – has always been a vibrant playground for filmmakers seeking weighty material to create artistic cinema.
Relative newcomer Tara Miele found inspiration from her own car accident to blend reality and fantasy in Wander Darkly, a melancholic film that finds new parents Adrienne and Matteo at a crossroads following a family tragedy that forces the pair to reflect back on haunting truths in their relationship and the uncertainty of the road ahead.
Wander Darkly is in many respects an amalgamation of any number of genres, mystifyingly complex, deeply romantic, otherworldly supernatural and devastatingly bittersweet.
Miele constructs a world that effortlessly changes at the drop of a hat to suit the needs of her character-driven story as the camera floats behind Adrienne dragging viewers through her fragile emotional state.
In unquestionably her career best performance, Sienna Miller is astonishingly transfixing as Adrienne, a woman coming to terms with remarkable trauma through great uncertainty that manifests as a combination of half-remembered dreams and painstaking what ifs. She is led through this journey of the soul by the vision of her husband, essentially playing the Jacob Marley from Charles Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” or Virgil from Dante’s “Inferno.”
Miller meanders through scenes in a daze as the totality of Adrienne’s tragedy sinks in. There’s something especially haunting about her slow, aimless stumble as Miele and cinematographer Carolina Costa linger on Miller’s feet visualizing the distance between Adrienne’s body and soul or between Adrienne and Matteo.
Diego Luna walks a tightrope between being the affable man Adrienne fell in love with and the distant figure she longs to get away from. His Matteo is more loosely defined in the performance than Miller’s more demonstrative Adrienne but works when considered in the context that viewers are seeing him most often through the lens of her memories.
Miller and Luna have an uneasy, uneven chemistry that doesn’t feel organically designed that way, but works in the greater scheme of the film as Wander Darkly relies heavily on a schism between Adrienne and Matteo that lingers like a cloud over their relationship.
A portrait of a relationship fading from view like a feather floating away in the breeze, Miele makes the wonderful choice of progressively pulling Matteo and Adrienne further apart as they are working to come back together emotionally.
The visual palette of Wander Darkly draws heavily from contrast heavy films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and pairs a connective one-take editing style with a constantly moving hand-held camera to stitch together a timeline-bending narrative and keep audiences always in motion ready for the film’s next emotional twist.
Where Wander Darkly struggles most is in its final third, which takes Adrienne’s journey of self-discovery into an overwhelming amount of grief that neither the characters nor Miele herself quite know how to convey. There’s so much potential for Wander Darkly to be a standout film from start to finish as the opening 65 minutes is an exertion of true artistic vision from a filmmaker who clearly has something to say.
A more refined finish, or better still, an open-ended one would have provided the chef’s kiss of a truly brilliant independent feature.
Wander Darkly is primed for much greater chances of success with critics’ groups and the Film Independent Spirit Awards than it will be with Oscar voters. The one exception, however, may be Miller, who could theoretically sneak her way into a Best Actress nomination in an uncertain year.
A film crystallized in emotions, Wander Darkly wallows in its melancholy far too much for some audiences, but those who become deeply invested in the characters – especially Miller’s transfixing Adrienne – will find Miele’s film original, genuine and beautifully haunting, something well worth seeking out on demand.