Review: DARK OF WINTER

David C. Snyder's micro-budget piece of nihilism Dark of Winter is the kind of thing where you feel you can practically see the movie as the director had it set out in his head, along with all the discrepancies between that original vision and what actually ended up on screen. Honestly, that's not meant as some arrogant excuse for why the film didn't sit right - this morose little thriller has a fair few moments that should make it worth a watch for some, and Snyder demonstrates definite talent behind the camera.

But every scene, sometimes every shot seems like an imperfect realisation of something far grander, or deeper. And what Snyder has managed to do with his limited resources isn't enough to sell that deeper subtext, or bring enough of it out to form something properly coherent. It's a sprawling tapestry of psychological symbolism shot for pocket change (relatively speaking) and with a running time of less than eighty minutes, and neither the director nor his cast and crew are up to making it feel like much more.

John French (Kyle Jason, from Snyder's debut The Quiet Arrangement) is an assassin tasked with pulling off a complex hit on multiple targets over the course of several days. In the middle of the operation he discovers the man responsible for his daughter's death ten years back is about to be paroled. French is determined to remain focused on the job, but when Sarah (Erica Paisley) a friend of his daughter's turns up out of the blue he finds himself haunted by memories of what happened, and his assignment placed in jeopardy as one thing after another starts to go horribly wrong.

Summing Dark of Winter up like that probably makes it seem much like any other brainless Z-list action flick with delusions of class, but Snyder has far higher aspirations. The director starts playing around with our perception of what's actually happening fairly early on, and never lets up. He delights in dream sequences that might not be, flickering glimpses into French's subconscious, even the impression the man's chasing ghosts as his life falls apart. The ending suggests a desire to finish on a talking point for people to puzzle over rather than to draw a neat line under everything.

There are times when Snyder manages to evoke a sense of the kind of nightmarish disconnect from reality he could have portrayed given, say, ten times the money. He shoots on what looks like fairly stock DV with little or no ornamentation - far too much of the blood looks patently fake, colours are greasy and over-saturated and moving from interiors to exteriors leaves the light blown out for long, painful seconds. But there are times when he points at a wide-open landscape or catches a character just so that tell you the man does have much more of an artist's eye than many directors.

But Snyder simply doesn't seem to know how to work around his limitations. No-one likes to be told to scale their ambitions down, but when you see how the man tries to barrel through set piece after convoluted set piece despite having virtually nothing to build any of them them with you can't help but cringe. None of Dark of Winter is a total loss: what artistry Snyder can put together plus the surprisingly accomplished dark ambient score do elevate even the most threadbare scenes. Yet none of it clears the bar, either.

Far too many of the dreamlike passages are plainly just fairly simple two-handers jazzed up with Dutch angles and added spooky red lighting. French's subconscious is a mess of laughably poor visual effects and eerie grinning to camera that looks like something left in the editing room two or three decades ago. He's not a tortured soul desperately chasing ghosts, he's an actor running around an empty house angrily yelling at thin air. Not for a moment does the film ever let you forget any of this.

The cast don't help, though Snyder's script is no great shakes either. Kyle Jason puts in some effort, but neither he nor Paisley have the presence to sell material that's so fundamentally thin under all the posturing. The rest get barely enough screen time to register. Yet Snyder seems fairly lost from the moment French appears in the opening sequence sleeping with his gun (because how else would we know he's an assassin, right?).

Dark of Winter was apparently thrown together in a couple of weeks, but this still doesn't excuse how much it fails to live up to even lowered expectations. Ambiguity is one thing, but it's difficult to be certain of what's going on here most of the time. The spartan plotting doesn't help - there's no suggestion any of the cast are real people, barely a hint they live normal lives, which only leaves the psychological or (possibly) supernatural passages looking all the more glaringly awkward.

Compared to what other directors have managed working under similar conditions - with next to no money and a quick break in their schedule - there's no reason to cut Snyder much slack. There's promise here, but not much of a film for all but the most committed fans of bizarre American Gothic. If Snyder could dial things back and stop trying to stretch a meagre budget in a dozen directions at once it's possible he could make a film worth watching, but on the strength of Dark of Winter he's not there yet. Patchy, confusing, and deeply unfulfilling this little experiment is impossible to recommend.
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