Photo: ‘A Dark Foe’/Vertical Entertainment
‘A Dark Foe’ is an admirable attempt at filmmaking, but it stumbles a bit right out of the gate. The film, directed by Maria Gabriela Cardenas, and written by her father, Oscar Cardenas, has an aesthetic and personality that are very much in a similar vein to modern noir like David Fincher’s ‘Se7en’. So much so that if the director said she wasn’t even slightly inspired by those movies, it’d be one of the biggest twists of ‘A Dark Foe’.
But if nothing else, the cop thriller was a nice reminder of how much I missed these kinds of atmospheric cop movies where there’s an intrinsic connection between cop and serial killer that almost feels supernatural in design. ‘The Little Things’, starring Denzel Washington, attempted to resuscitate this long lost sub-genre of serial killer movies, and facing ‘A Dark Foe’, it was hard not to let expectations run wild for the film like I had with HBO Max’s and Washington’s killer new movie. Unfortunately, my expectations weren’t exactly met.
‘A Dark Foe’ simply lacks the patience, experience, or attitude to bring the best out of its premise like I hoped it would. In some ways, it feels like a parody of ‘Se7en’ and other movies of its elk, but completely lacking in self-awareness. The writing could’ve used a little more care and attention to detail, and the storytelling would’ve benefited from a slight clean-up. Nevertheless, I found myself very much entertained by ‘A Dark Foe’, although I’m not sure it was for the right reasons.
‘A Dark Foe’ Has A Lot Of Imagination, But Lacks Narrative Discipline
‘A Dark Foe’ opens up with a black screen and a powerful Walt Whitman poem that immediately sets the mood for the story. Afterward, we see a young girl who can’t be any older than twelve or thirteen running through the woods. There’s a white glow surrounding the wooded area, intentionally giving it the appearance of either Heaven or the Afterlife. But behind the little girl, a man with a severed ear and blood staining his outfit are on her tail. Despite the fact that he’s dressed like a Pastor or an angel, sporting a snow-white suit that looks purer than his conscience, it doesn’t seem like he has good intentions for the little girl in mind. Unfortunately, when the pursuant is finally within reach of his target, the scene cuts before we can see what he does to her, and the film invites us inside the home of the character who the audience is supposed to follow. Tony Cruz, played by Oscar Cardenas, exhibits many of the stereotypes and habits often exhibited by the obsessive cop.
His living room tells the story of a man on an impossible crusade to purge the world of all criminality and evil, as it’s filled with the kind of resources mostly used to investigate serious crimes. On the living room wall are hand-made sketches of a missing girl, showing her from ages 12-25, implying that there’s one case he’s involved in that’s a bit more personal than the rest. And the implication turns out to be correct. The missing girl is Ana Cruz, Tony’s little sister who was abducted by “The Cradle,” a serial killer who’s been expertly eluding the police for years. The film is about Tony’s relentless pursuit of a murderer so evasive he’s taken on a mythic quality, while at the same time rescuing his sister from The Cradle’s deadly clutches. Assuming she’s still alive.
Initially, the film’s concept hooked me. As previously stated, I adore these films where the cop has a kind of forbidden bond and understanding with the killer he’s chasing, so much so they’re practically parallels of each other. Unfortunately, however, ‘A Dark Foe’s’ execution of this idea required more suspension of disbelief than I was reasonably capable of giving it. The backstory between Tony and The Cradle left a lot to be desired in the writing, and the circumstances surrounding The Cradle’s kidnapping of Ana lacked the realism needed for me to buy into its story.
I may not have agreed with all of Cardenas’ narrative decisions, but I never abandoned the film altogether, as there were enough interesting elements in ‘A Dark Foe’ to keep me intrigued. One of those elements was Tony’s uncontrollable phobia of the dark, a psychological disorder that hasn’t really been explored in most films like these. ‘A Dark Foe’ first hints at Tony’s mental illness when we find him trying to sleep in his bed with the light on. Then it later throws subtlety completely out the window when the darkness nearly costs him both his job and his life. When Tony traces his fear of the dark back to specific childhood trauma, he must overcome this psychological fear of his as he gets closer and closer to solving the case, and finding the kidnapper he couldn’t catch like the one that got away.
A grown, middle-aged man and badass detective being afraid of the dark might seem a bit juvenile to less forgiving viewers, but I thought it was an interesting flaw to burden Tony with. It was something different, and the fact that this kind of disorder truly exists, officially called Nyctophobia, gave Tony’s condition some much-needed credibility. This also makes it especially dangerous for him to pursue The Cradle when Tony has such a powerful Achilles heel that anyone can take advantage of.
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‘A Dark Foe’ also has a surprising amount of commentary that would’ve really added depth to its narrative if its messages were more carefully presented. Themes of fatherhood, religion, afterlife, and imperialism are all over the film, but they’re put together in a sloppy manner that diminishes their inherent value. It’s kind of like reading someone’s homework when they have bad handwriting, you might pick up a word here or there, maybe a couple of ideas, but the full quality of the message is ultimately lost.
Interesting Characters Lacking Dimension
Perhaps the most frustrating part of ‘A Dark Foe’ is its characters, who feel more like silhouettes or rough drafts of the characters they’re supposed to be instead of the actualized versions. Aside from Tony’s aversion to the darkness, for instance, he’s basically the same cynical veteran detective we’ve seen in the likes of ”Se7en’ and ‘Silence of The Lambs’, except without all of the depth or idiosyncrasies that forced characters like detective William Somerset to rise above tired cop stereotypes. It doesn’t help that Tony’s Hispanic, whose heritage and culture could’ve played a huge role in the makeup of his character. Especially since Hispanic representation in films like these isn’t very common. But the Hispanic culture in the film seems to only be there as a colorful backdrop, something used to decorate the movie, with no influence on the plot.
But Tony isn’t the only character whose growth was stunted by the writing. Our main antagonist of the film, The Cradle, also has problems with his character that perhaps could’ve been fixed if tweaked a bit. There are two versions of The Cradle we see in the film, a younger version played by Tokala Black Elk, and an older version played by Graham Greene. Thing is, the younger version and the older version feel like two completely different characters, not based on appearance, but more so based on characterization. The young Cradle is portrayed as the typical serial killer, depraved and unhinged, with an animistic and rabid obsession for murder. Whereas his older counterpart is much more restrained. He’s cunning in the same way that a Jigsaw or a Michael Myers is, and stealthy in the same way, too.
The method to his madness, and his own motivations for killing, paint Older Cradle in a somewhat compassionate light. Meanwhile, his younger self comes off as completely irredeemable, killing out of enjoyment rather than serving a specific cause. You can say that, with time, the young Cradle grew into the older Cradle, but that character arc isn’t present anywhere in the film. And since there are absolutely no remnants of Young Cradle inside of Old Cradle whatsoever, the characterization comes off as inconsistent.
The mishandling of The Cradle is one of the film’s worst offenses, as the character himself is teeming with possibilities. The Cradle is Native American, and some of his motives are rooted in the losing war his ancestors engaged in with imperialists, which is a fascinating concept ‘A Dark Foe’ could’ve lingered on more. Even the way he murders some of his victims, skinning their flesh and scalping them, is an intentional mockery of the way colonists depicted the brutality of the Native Americans back in the old days, if only to justify their own brutality against the Native American people. But there are too many inconsistencies with The Cradle’s actions, and not enough development of the character, for these creative new ideas to leave any real impression on the viewer. Ironically, a serial killer who specialized in taking people’s flesh, wasn’t fleshed out enough himself.
The supporting cast that rounds out ‘A Dark Foe’ is lacking in growth and personality. The characters come off as unintentional parodies more than anything else, with wet personalities and incomplete arcs that are never finished. At least with The Cradle and Tony, there seemed to be some kind of effort put into their design. The supporting cast, unfortunately, didn’t receive the same level of care. And it shows.
‘A Dark Foe’ Is Quite The Trip
‘A Dark Foe’ has a lot going against it. Its pacing is all over the place, and its plot can be a little careless. Characters make illogical decisions seemingly every other scene, and a lot of what happens in ‘A Dark Foe’ is just plain silly. But somehow, I did have quite a bit of fun spending time with the movie. It has a lot of hilarious moments, albeit unintentionally, and I definitely couldn’t predict where exactly the film was going. Admittedly, sometimes ‘A Dark Foe’ didn’t seem to know where it was going either. The film has a lot of great ideas that could’ve made for a great story if Cardenas reigned them in. Instead of cramming all of her ideas into one film, perhaps she could’ve stretched them out in a sequel or two, as she definitely had enough content to last a franchise. But even though ‘A Dark Foe’ didn’t exactly stick to its landing, or come close to it, it went out in a blaze of glory, and Cardenas should consider that an accomplishment.
Directed by: Maria Gabriela Cardenas | Written by: Oscar Cardenas, Maria Gabriela Cardenas
Produced by: Maria Gabriela Cardenas
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