REVIEW: Wander Darkly [2020]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 97 minutes
    Release Date: December 11th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Lionsgate
    Director(s): Tara Miele
    Writer(s): Tara Miele

And one for tomorrow.

The thing about living for the future is that it often neglects the past. While a necessary coping mechanism to move forward after traumatic loss, forgetting also risks our ability to heal through the memories of what came before. It’s why we’re nothing without where we’ve been for better and worse. Those experiences shape our identity and strength as each struggle pushes us on a path towards something greater than their devastating parts. So when Adrienne (Sienna Miller) awakens to find her body lying motionless on a hospital bed, it’s only natural for her to seek an answer for what comes next. She needs to see what happens to her new baby and know that her boyfriend Matteo (Diego Luna) will always be by Ellie’s side.

Without remembering what occurred before the car crash, however, all she’ll have at her disposal to manifest that hope are the worries and frustrations of the moment. Adrienne will be stuck in a darkened nightmare tinted by the heavy emotions punctuating their final conversation—one that hears her wondering aloud about the lack of reasons for why they should stay together. That’s the bombshell uttered mere seconds prior to blinding headlights turning everything to black. That’s the anger and uncertainty that was swirling inside her courtesy of the pain and anguish felt for years via thoughts that Matteo was having an affair and knowledge that he never wanted to have children. That’s what makes her believe he won’t be in their daughter’s life. Her present forgets her past.

And who can blame her for letting that happen? What purpose in oblivion would she have for stepping back and hoping things aren’t so dire? She’s dead. Her absence will shatter those who loved her. They’ll untether those who only remained because of the thought that things might get better. So when Matteo suddenly appears to stop her from jumping off a bridge in a bid to escape this purgatorial nightmare, she prays that it’s because he’s dead too. That would be a reason she could accept as far as his absence from Ellie’s life as imagined through a rapidly progressing glimpse forward. To hear him say the opposite—that he sees her because she herself isn’t dead—is thus absurd. She knows she is. She saw it.

Therein lies the thrust of Tara Miele‘s Wander Darkly. Matteo arrives to guide her backwards and show her that her worst fears aren’t cemented in time. He’ll play along with her delusion of death by keeping her parents (Beth Grant and Brett Rice) away and take her hand to travel through their history together, revealing the happiness they shared and the misconceptions they refused to discard. She will quite literally wander darkly through them. Yes she’ll smile. Yes she’ll embrace the warmth of their power to heal. But none of it will change what happened. She’ll still be dead and he’ll still be gone. Adrienne will do it anyway, though, so that the light Matteo tries to imbue in her opens his eyes instead. Maybe then he’ll stay.

What follows is a visually and emotionally stunning journey through their shared memories both as outsiders and insiders. These aren’t videos playing before their eyes—Adrienne and Matteo are reliving each moment with a self-awareness that allows them to comment on and interpret their respective actions in real-time with the supporting players in each breaking character to add some clarity of their own. There are the good times like a dream-like vacation in Mexico and horrible times like the glimpses of the potential earmarks for infidelity suffered by both parties at one time or another. He wants her to feel them and believe she’s still alive. She wants him to feel them and promise to never leave their daughter behind. Their lives are thus flashing before their eyes.

As such, we can’t yet truly know if she is a manifestation for him, if he is a manifestation for her, or it they are both dying at the same time. Adrienne wants the pain to end so she can finally sleep. Matteo is clawing with everything he has to wake-up. They laugh and cry, provide context to one-sided moments, and risk everything to have the other choose life even if it’s just to exist within this place between worlds for a little while longer. Miele is giving shape to the idea that we never know what we have until its gone in all its messiness so that these two lovers can finally say what they’ve been too afraid to say before: that what they had was real.

Doubt in another is doubt in oneself. They let jealousy tear them apart so ruthlessly because they refused to accept the vulnerability that it would take to tell the other that their worst fears are unfounded and the fact that they almost weren’t is why they’ll ensure never to stray. Only now in death can they take that leap of faith and tell the truth. Only now can they admit that the snide remarks and putdowns were more about their insecurities in themselves than in their partner. Their love therefore grows stronger than ever and Ellie transforms from being the last-ditch effort to salvage their relationship into being evidence of its immovable strength. No matter what happens to them, she’d live on as their future and past.

The fluid editing and story structure provides Wander Darkly‘s undeniable aesthetic potency, but it’s Miller and Luna who turn that surface beauty into something universally resonant. Their performances transcend anything that could have been delivered through flashbacks alone because they’re allowed to react in wholly different ways due to hindsight, incomplete recollection, and emotional blind spots. Their Adrienne and Matteo are giving each other a second opportunity to right their wrongs and accept those failings as steps that subsequently brought them closer together rather than further apart. And just because one or both might be dead doesn’t render the work being done any less important. A light is being found that they will carry in place of the disappointment and regret they wrongfully gripped too tightly.

Miele may write her ending a bit on the nose as far as explanations are concerned (her film is very reminiscent of Stay yet with a much longer stretch on the other side of its “delusion”), but I think it needs that transparency to succeed in its goal because hers is about three intertwined lives discovering their footing within a heightened state of consciousness rather than strangers thrown together inside a fantasy. We need the cathartic release that only truth can provide. We need to see the debilitating grief so the courage to overcome it lands with the power it deserves. This isn’t living in spite of death. It’s living with death. Because the deceased party is never truly gone. They keep living on within us.

courtesy of Lionsgate

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