“I’m so fucking tired,” a declaration made by a central character early on in Matthew Porterfield’s third film, could apply to the spiritual exhaustion that all three of his features to date have dealt with in one way or another. Porterfield has proven himself to be uniquely gifted at rendering ineffable feelings and commonplace crises, whether through minimalist atmospherics (Hamilton, his 2006 debut), meticulously composed and static long takes (Putty Hill, 10), or tropes from musicals. The results are uniformly beautiful and sad, both on the screen and as they ferment in the viewer’s memory.
Porterfield’s work has been consistently marked by a moral and psychological sensitivity, the kind that allows nonprofessional actors (the only type he casts) and audiences alike to trust in his melancholic vision just as a student might feel a bond with a sympathetic pedagogue. (His day job, not coincidentally, is as a professor of Film and Media Studies at Johns Hopkins University.) Simply put, he has a touch all his own: the sparse and rigorous Hamilton bares only a slight cosmetic resemblance to I Used To Be Darker, his latest and most accomplished effort yet, but his miniaturist attention to some of the subtlest fluctuations of the human soul is as evident now as it was then.
We first meet our Irish protagonist, Taryn (Deragh Campbell), youthfully squandering a summer working on the boardwalk in Maryland’s Ocean City. It’s not long before a positive pregnancy test sends her fleeing to Baltimore and the home of her uncle Bill (musician Ned Oldham), aunt Kim (Kim Taylor, also a singer/songwriter) and cousin Abby (Hannah Gross). Little does Taryn know that groovy Bill and alt-country quasi-star Kim are in the process of separating and that Abby, on vacation following her freshman year of college, is up to her neck in her own personal season in hell.
The fragile ties between these four grow increasingly knotty but resist falling apart. Abby and Taryn savor a brief period as partners in crime while Bill downs another whisky and looks on in private anguish as Kim and her bandmates remove their instruments from his poster-adorned basement/practice space. The psychodramatic dominoes fall one after the other. The girls alternately bond and bicker, the soon-to-be-former couple fall even deeper into shared misery, songs are performed with and without backing bands, and Taryn’s pregnancy inevitably goes from being a hushed-up secret to something of a conversation piece.
The plot is greatly enhanced by Porterfield’s Eggleston-like ability to extract the uncanny from scenes of middle-class banality. Bill points out that the décor of a steakhouse is “fancy like a funeral parlor,” and an ostensibly straightforward episode of American teenage binge-drinking turns almost surreal when Taryn and a friend abruptly begin speaking to each other in unsubtitled French. One of the film’s strongest moments finds Abby walking in on her father… playing guitar with a friend, although she reacts as though she has stumbled upon the primal scene. But the narrative’s events and ellipses also evoke the inherent discomfort involved in both the early stages of adulthood and the dissolution of a marriage, a connection made by the film itself when Taryn asks Kim “Does it get any easier?” Kim’s response: “No.”
Bolstered by Jeremy Saulnier’s exquisitely washed-out, intermittently warm but for the most part hauntingly cold cinematography, I Used To Be Darker is at once of a thematic piece with Porterfield’s previous two features and a stylistic step in an exciting and enigmatic new direction. For now, it suffices to say that few filmmakers are getting at the substance of contemporary life as effectively.