Marina de Van made marks with her 2002 horror film In My Skin, about a woman who continues to pick and cut at her body in gruesome ways. It was a psychological movie about pain, progress, and beauty, and de Van often focused on the grim to document our societal problems. She’s back with a new horror film titled Dark Touch; she’s still focused on abuse, but this time it centers around children instead of self-infliction.
The film stars Missy Keating as Neve, a girl who quickly loses her parents and her brother in a house accident after all of the object’s begin to move of their own accord. Neve moves in with her neighbors Nat (Marcella Plunkett) and Lucas (Padraic Delaney) and their children, although she is still maladjusted to her surroundings. She’s never been at ease with new people, and in the opening of the film she jumps through a window to escape from her parents. But now that they’re gone she seems to live in a haze that involves distancing herself from nearly everyone.
Eventually it becomes apparent that Neve has been abused, and during that abuse, she developed some sort of psychokinetic ability. She can move things when she gets angry or upset, and sometimes that anger can be channeled into a murderous rage that pushes objects into those around her. At first, she can’t control it, and she doesn’t really understand it. But later in the film, she begins to understand that this gift, this dark touch (you see how they got the title, eh?), can be useful to her.
De Van’s direction is dark and sterile. There’s a lot of cold, blue-black lighting, even in the scenes that are filmed outdoors. Everything is draped in a frigid shadow, an icy pallor, that does a fairly good job of depicting such a depressing aura that it’s sometimes difficult to feel any sort of hope for Dark Touch‘s characters. And de Van works with esoteric imagery as well; quick shots of people screaming or items jiggling in place are there and then gone again, forcing the viewer to question whether it’s all really happening.
Missy Keating is impressive as Neve, because she captures the haunted look of her character so perfectly that sometimes the audience is forced to distrust her. For the most part, Dark Touch chooses to depict Neve’s point of view, and that can get a little confusing for the viewer because it’s not too clear how reliable Neve really is.
That’s why de Van can get away with her explicit imagery of belt buckles and piled clothing; it’s obvious these are symbols for sexual molestation, but the viewer is never sure if Neve is simply implying that abuse occurred or if we’re being misled. Still, those encounters are often disturbing; a scene where Neve is slapped, then begins to pull down her underwear evokes a sense that her parents, or someone, has ingrained in her mind that physical violence pairs with sex.
However, Dark Touch often gets too wound up in its own themes. The obvious idea behind the film is child abuse, and indeed there are multiple instances where that occurs throughout, even to the point where Neve suggests that Lucas and Nat’s child died of cancer because they didn’t love her enough. It’s clear how Neve has come to this line of thinking; she’s been treated like crap by her family, her classmates, and sometimes Nat.
But the immediacy of her turn from mostly gentle, sometimes murderous-on-accident demeanor is quite perplexing, to say the least. De Van doesn’t make it clear how Neve learns to control her powers, since she has just realized she has them a few days before. In a way, this is how Dark Touch remains so mysterious; de Van is reticent to release any detail to the viewer, perhaps attempting to force them to think about the reasons Neve would do the violent things she does. Yet it also creates a disconnect between film and audience; there’s something lacking in de Van’s script, as though she just hasn’t gone far enough to justify why Neve kills schoolmates, how she forces them to do her bidding, and why they’re so ready to die for their cause.
Still, Dark Touch has a number of chilling scenes that help to break up the slower characterization. The finale is explosive and eerie; watching a building collapse in on itself and knowing what’s inside makes the spine crawl. De Van doesn’t skip on grim scenes, either. Instead, she shoots through them, allowing the viewer to watch as pain is administered like a punishment.
All around it’s a dark and depressing film with little hope for humanity, and though de Van tends to muddle her themes by being a little too withholding from the viewer, the disturbing nature of child abuse is depicted in a clever and mysterious manner. Dark Touch might not always succeed in its experiments, but it has a strong grasp on the bleak tale it sets out to tell.
Thanks to IFC Films for providing review copy.