Lovely, Dark, and Deep

Lovely, Dark, and Deep (2023) at Fantasia

Lovely, Dark, and Deep had its world première at Fantasia 2023

“Into the forest I go, to lose my mind, and find my soul” goes the text quote from John Muir with which Lovely, Dark, and Deep opens. Sure enough, this feature debut from writer/director Teresa Sutherland, who previously scripted Emma Tammi’s The Wind (2018), is similarly concerned with a damaged woman who, left to her own devices, becomes lost to nature and madness, no longer able to see the wood for the trees. 

Indeed it is set in the fictitious Arvores National Park, named for the Portuguese word for ‘trees’, where Lennon (Georgina Campbell) has just arrived to take up a post as a backcountry ranger – a ‘dream job’ that she has been pursuing for years. Assigned to stay for 90 days in a sparely furnished cabin to watch over a remote area of woodland where many persons have gone missing, Lennon in fact comes with her own agenda: to search for her little sister Jenny who vanished on her watch when they were both still children. All on her lonesome, Lennon has a lot of psychic terrain to explore, as she works through her unresolved grief and guilt – but as strange, disoriented people drift in and out, and as Lennon’s memories and dreams start to merge with her real experience, something out there does seem to be imposing its supernatural presence.

“Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but memories, kill nothing but time,” Zhang (Wai Ching Ho) advises the backcountry rangers before they head off for their three months on the wilderness – advice that Jackson (Nick Blood), the ranger stationed closest to Lennon, truncates to, “Leave nothing, take nothing, kill nothing.” Yet in bringing her own baggage to this mysterious zone, and resolving to find and save lost souls – and so maybe to redeem herself – even if it means ignoring direct orders, Lennon risks disrupting an enigmatic ecosystem that she cannot even begin to understand. 

Lennon joins the ranks of rookie rangers found in Roxane Benjamin’s Body at Brighton Rock (2019) and Joe Lo Truglio’s Outpost (2022), whose outward-bound excursions are also confrontational journeys within. Meanwhile the vivid recurrences of Lennon’s past and conscience recall Lucky McKee’s Old Man (2022), and the cosmic horror evokes Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead‘s debut Resolution (2012) – both similarly set in a cabin in the woods. Yet Lennon’s close encounters in the forest find their own peculiarly hallucinatory directions, as she learns to leave the lost to themselves, and to turn her back on both responsibility and reality. 

Sutherland’s careful blurring of past and present, fact and fantasy, is achieved through match cuts, superimpositions, inverted shots, and a vertiginous interchange between low angles and aerial views, leaving us, along with Lennon, unmoored and no longer sure which way is up or down – and it is all orchestrated to Shida Shahabi’s unnerving choral score. Ultimately this sylvan conspiracy comes with a solution of sorts, but better to lose yourself down its false paths and into its heady waters, as its heroine either falls victim to her own psychological fragility, or finds her true calling.

strap: Teresa Sutherland’s feature debut lets a damaged rookie ranger get lost in woods all at once natural, supernatural, psychological and cosmic

© Anton Bitel