When Cleo Callaghan (Emma Eliza Regan) goes into the local supply store to buy hollow-point bullets for her hunting rifle, clearly visible in the scene’s foreground is a female dummy with a red-stained gauze over one of its eyes. Not only does this monocular mannequin model Cleo’s own future appearance, but it also alludes to They Call Her One Eye (aka Thriller – a Cruel Picture), Bo Arne Vibenius’ notorious Swedish exploitation picture from 1973 in which Christina Lindberg’s iconic wronged-woman-with-eyepatch takes bloody revenge using a double-barrelled shotgun. Vengeance will also be the driving force behind Darkness on the Edge of Town, the debut feature of writer/director Patrick Ryan, which plays out like an Irish oater with a quasi-Sapphic relationship at its heart.
Orphaned while still a child, and abandoned by her older sister Aisling (Olwen Catherine Kelly), Cleo is a troubled teenager, resistant to the solicitations of her assigned foster parents. She is at ease only in the company of her similarly troubled best friend Robin O’Riley (Emma Willis), or when out hunting on the foggy hills that surround the town. Her potential as a future Olympics sharpshooter is matched by the impressive extent of her rap sheet for petty crime and delinquency. In other words, Cleo is on a precipice of adolescence, and could fall either way. What sends her off the rails is the bloody murder of Aisling in a public toilet – and as Cleo sets herself on a course of violent, vengeful action (“I’ll get them for what they did to my sister – I’ll kill them”), she is joined in her vendetta by Robin (“I’m with you for whatever”), not realising – as we do – that Robin is herself the killer. And so this duo, bonded in abandonment, fall foul of the police, of Robin’s alcoholic mother (Clodagh Downing) and older brother (Brian Gleeson), and of a gun-running traveller (Sam Monaghan) and his family, all the while vividly reenacting a deep vein of self-destruction that has always defined their own relationship.
A key, and recurring, image in Darkness on the Edge of Town shows Cleo aiming and shooting at a target placed atop Robin’s head. Robin’s insistence on helping Cleo hunt down the killer might be regarded as an extension of this dangerous game (initiated at their first childhood meeting), with Robin always placing herself as close as possible to the trajectory of her friend’s fireline. There is an element of Liebestod here, as Robin’s attachment to Cleo comes with an undeniable erotic frisson. This is visible in Robin’s looks of desperate longing, and the suggestion of a romance is manifested most strongly in a scene where one girl lights her cigarette by touching the tip of the other’s, with DP Tommy Fitzgerald carefully angling his camera to elide the cigarettes entirely from the shot, leaving the impression of a passionate kiss. It is a moment of quiet intimacy between characters who are for the most part outwardly brash and aggressive, and it shows the refuge that these two provide for one another from a world that they perceive as harsh and abusive.
Yet if all this sounds compelling, Darkness on the Edge of Town comes with a lot of teething problems too. Though well played, and slyly psychologised with backstories, Cleo and Robin offer little with which the viewer can engage. Their alienation is clearly established, but their actual character less so, and so their dilemmas – and any associated tensions – seem likely to be met with an indifferent shrug. Then there is the crucial incident in which Cleo transforms into something like Vibenius’ one-eyed killing machine – crucial, yet shot in such darkness and confusion that, despite watching it three times, I am still none the wiser as to what actually happened (even if the outcome is clear enough). Lastly there is Alex Ryan’s folksy score, upbeat where the film is downbeat, middle-of-the-road where the characters and setting are marginal, and so at odds with the film’s otherwise bleak tone that viewers may well find themselves struggling in vain to discern some sort of ironising effect that is not there. Darkness on the Edge of Town is, though, unquestionably a very pretty film, and its mist-shrouded mixing of genres makes for a bold calling card.
© Anton Bitel