By: Hawk Ripjaw (Two Beers) –
Sybil Warren (April Billingsley) has been institutionalized for her continued insistence that her unborn child was forcibly taken from her by a secret society intent on harvesting a rare, blood-born power that allows her to hear the thoughts of others. She’s also been diagnosed with schizophrenia and there are tangible medical documents refuting her claim of her child being stolen.
During sessions with her new psychiatrist Dr. Deluce (Kelsey Scott), Sybil recounts her life from her sessions with physician Dr. Morales (Bernard Setaro Clark) as a child, to the funeral for her adoptive mother Kathrine (Kill Jane Clements), where her immense sense of grief and isolation drive her into the arms of David Hollyfield (Conal Byrne). She falls in love with David and eventually conceives a child, but is still troubled by his refusal to introduce her to his family and his odd sense of possessiveness and secrecy. When she finally convinces him to introduce her to his family, her story becomes a free-fall of trauma before she gets the opportunity to outsmart and defeat everyone who’s victimized her.
April Billingsley is The Dark Red’s not-so-secret weapon, giving an absolutely transfixing performance as a traumatized, unstable grieving mother. The camera gives Billingsley plenty of room to emote, and the degree to which she conveys Sybil’s suffering is often uncomfortable.
The sessions initially unfold as a sort of combative exercise, as Sybil effortlessly rebuffs Dr. DeLuce’s therapy techniques with her own knowledge of what countless other therapists have attempted. It’s immediately apparent that the dialogue and overall writing of The Dark Red is extremely strong, especially in Sybil’s monologues ruminating on love and cynical observations on psychology.
It also does well building ambiguity around Sybil’s claims that her baby was taken from her by rarely confirming the full factuality of her story. The best example comes when she describes to her husband her ability – “mind reading” a teenaged girl stressing over an accidental pregnancy. Yet the truth of that reading is left subjective. The second half of the movie seems fairly straightforward, but there are still sprinkles of uncertainty from conflicting accounts and events that really contribute to Sybil’s state of mind. It culminates in a wild, violent finale that warps everything that comes before into a fever dream of catharsis.
There’s a certain feel to The Dark Red, almost dreamlike at times but more naturalistic at others, with an excellent, malleable musical score shifting between piano and synth to set the mood of the scene. Visually it doesn’t do much to set itself apart, but the muscle behind the writing and scoring does plenty to give the movie a distinct flavor.
There’s a lot going on in The Dark Red, with varying results. It is a drama about a grieving mother, a psychological mystery, a supernatural thriller, and a revenge film, all in one, and all in about 95 minutes. It plays with so many creative and interesting ideas, but is unable to see all of them to fruition, making some parts of the film feel a bit undercooked. The cult and Sybil’s bloodline particularly are enticing bits that sadly exist as little more than bullet points for the plot and don’t build out into anything significant for the movie as a whole.
When the third act switches into revenge thriller territory, the transition feels jarring and the setup formulaic (yes, there is a training montage). Some elements of the third act feel convenient and occasionally contrived. It could also be an elaborate and exaggerated power fantasy, but it doesn’t sell the ambiguity of Sybil’s mental state as well as the rest of the film had before.
Ultimately, The Dark Red is kind of awesome. Though overstuffed, it’s a well-acted, consistently engaging genre hybrid that emphasizes the narrative creativity of writer-director Dan Bush. The main performances are raw and real. The score is excellent. There’s a real catharsis to how Sybil wields her physical, psychological, and psychic power.
It especially makes me excited to see what Bush can do given a bigger playground. The Dark Red doesn’t reach its apparent full potential, but the vision is there, and that vision is still worth checking out.
The Dark Red (2020) Movie Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every shot of the bird in the cage.
Take a Drink: every time someone says “baby.”
Take a Drink: for every manifestation of Sybil’s power.