Wander Darkly review: A mostly clunky trauma drama — with a metaphysical twist
If the great existential question that is this whole godforsaken year hasn’t been enough for you, writer-director Tara Miele’s indie drama Wander Darkly, which premiered at Sundance in January, takes on a doozy. Though at first seeming to ask what happens when we die, the film instead becomes a rumination on what makes life worth living.
Adrienne (Sienna Miller) and Matteo (Diego Luna) are an unmarried couple living in L.A. who share a baby daughter, a precarious financial situation, and a mountain of tension built of suspicion, resentment, and stress. One night, driving home from a party where they could barely conceal their dysfunction from their friends, just as they argue about whether their life together is even worth salvaging at all, they get into an accident. Adrienne dies.
Well, sort of. In the aftermath of the crash, she stands in the middle of her hospital room, still in her gown, blood smeared down her forehead, and watches her own corpse get pushed down the hall and placed in the mortuary cabinet. From there, she enters a sort of labyrinth of her own existence, past and future: She sees her daughter growing up without her, then starts to travel back through scenes from her romance with Matteo, searching for things she might have missed, where it went wrong, or what meaning it ultimately had for them both.
The film’s greatest strength is the pairing of Miller and Luna, an immensely charismatic duo who give Adrienne and Matteo’s relationship (not to mention her metaphysical crisis) credibility even where Miele’s script does not. The writing especially lets them down in the flashbacks, as they switch, not quite seamlessly, between inhabiting Adrienne’s memories and commenting upon them; beyond the clumsy dialogue, the device undermines the power of each scene — from both temporal angles, as it were — rather than enhancing it.
Existing, as this narrative does, in the mind of its traumatized heroine, it’s disappointing that so many of the scenes from the couple’s past are so blatantly factual, presenting plot-piece episodes that serve concrete clues about the dissolution of their relationship. It doesn’t ring true that these obvious landmark moments are the ones stuck in Adrienne’s head when so often the memories we cling to tend to be outwardly ordinary, only interesting to those sharing in the intimacy. Wander Darkly doesn’t demonstrate an eye for the insight found in the everyday; by the end of it, the tour of the couple’s love story is more of a book report than an impression of a relationship, in all its complexity and inexpressibility. There is nothing inexpressible about Adrienne and Matteo. When in doubt, Miele returns to the one fun fact we know about each of them: He is a carpenter, and she has an embarrassing love of show tunes.
There are apparent inconsistencies in the magic, if that’s what you want to call it, of Adrienne’s limbo state, but it mostly adds to the frustrations of Wander Darkly to try too hard to decipher them rather than just let the story unravel. Because when Adrienne (and by extension the viewer) finally does come to understand her predicament and how to liberate herself from it (whatever “liberation” means in this context), it is an electrifying revelation, showing glimmers of profundity and making everything that came before it exponentially better. It’s just a shame it takes so long to get there — but worth it if you have the patience to wander, rather dimly, until you reach the light. B–
Wander Darkly hits select theaters and on demand Dec. 11.