Genre: Drama, Dark Comedy
Director: Todd Solondz
Stars: Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair, Christopher Walken
Romance blooms between two thirty-somethings in arrested development: an avid toy collector who is the dark horse of his family and a depressed woman on the rebound.
There is a word in Japanese, hikikomori, which is used to describe a social recluse, an adolescent or an adult, that’s usually financially supported by their parents or social programs who never really leaves the house or talks to others. It’s closely tied to the geeky lives of otaku as many hikikomori spend their lives online or wrapped up in whatever has their obsession.
Cracked did an article on this once, and how the English language needed a word to describe this same thing that happens to so many American geeks.
Todd Solondz’s film Dark Horse examines the life of one geek who, while in a state of arrested development, does have a lot of things I’m sure we could find in common with him. Which does make it one of the most depressing films I’ve ever seen.
We Are Depressing Outsiders
Dark Horse tells the story of Abe, a thirty-something in a sort of arrested development. He lives at home still, with his parents played excellently by Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken. Abe “works” for his father’s real estate company, meaning he takes up space and does the barest minimum he can to contribute. He’s in a state of arrested development, not because of any psychological disorder but because he’s never needed to become an adult. His parents have provided for him and Abe has become very comfortable as an adult who lives the life of a teenager.
Abe collects a lot of toys and figurines, leaving them in their packaging or displaying them around his room. This, not human contact, is his passion. There is a scene early on in the movie that not only develops Abe’s character but is something that I’ve seen a lot of us geeky people do. He goes to Toys-R-Us to return a toy he purchased (a ninja turtle I believe) because of a tiny scratch on it. He’s unable to get a refund because the package has been opened and Abe makes a scene of it – forcing that sense of entitlement that so many of us have. Recently I sold a comic through e-bay to a collector who then found the tiniest hairline crease on an interior page and there was no end to the angry e-mails I got from the guy. Sure, I gave him the refund, but I couldn’t hate the guy because I’ve done the same thing before. We ALL have. Us geeks, we like our things the way WE want them and there is no compromise. Just look at any message board discussing the “heresy” of cinematic changes to their beloved comic books.
Geeks don’t want to grow up. Look at any episode of The Big Bang Theory for instance, with adults that love childhood things, some still living with their parents. We crave the nostalgia of things we enjoyed as children and want to relive those simpler, happier times. This isn’t something specific to geeks – but you can’t deny that geeks are pretty heavy on the nostalgia factor. With geek culture becoming more and more “mainstream” there is that unspoken societal message that “it’s okay not to grow up completely. You don’t have to put your childish toys away. We all loved Thundercats and it’s perfectly okay to put aside your responsibilities and just marathon all the episodes on Netflix.
While Abe in Dark Horse may not be representative of all geeks – aspects of him are. It’s depressing to watch not because of thinking “is this how society sees us” but rather that looking in a mirror realization of THIS is what we’re like.
We Hold Grudges
Part of that geeky sense of entitlement is grudges. Us geeks have a hard time letting anything go.
In Dark Horse, Abe refuses to acknowledge that anything in his life might be his fault. He resents his successful brother blaming it all on a camping trip he missed ten years earlier. Abe refuses to let Toys-R-Us get the upper hand in his issue over the scratched toy – victory is assured in that battle because “I have a receipt.” It’s easy to look at Abe and say “Well that guy is just being stupid,” but we’ve all been there – this is just what us geeks do. Not many geeks tolerate compromise – especially over things that essentially mean NOTHING
Recently I was involved in what’s best described as “a war” with other people on the internet. It was all over the pettiest stuff imaginable and, really, what did any of us expect to be accomplished? It continued for months because, we’re all geeks and geeks can’t ever seem to let anything go. It’s easier to wage a war online, through comments and user-generated content, than to actually fight someone in person. We geeks think we’ll always win against that rogue person in a comments section because, like Abe, “I have a receipt!” Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. We geeks choose the dumbest things to hold grudges over. George Lucas supposedly “fucked up” the Star Wars prequels and geeks still rage about it over a decade later. Star Wars” The Phantom Menace came out in 1999 and now, 15 years later, if someone dares speak positively about the movie they are ostracized.
It’s easy to see Dark Horse‘s Abe as a random crazy, some stupid character we can point and laugh at. While we don’t all live with our parents still – we all act like Abe.
We Have Trouble With Human Connections
Us Geeks – we don’t get out of our zone of comfort very often. That’s not to say we’re all socially reclusive hikikomori that never speak to other humans outside of the internet. No, we all go to conventions or comic stores or movie screenings and meet other geeks like us – exactly like us. There’s a reason us geeks have a reputation of being “perpetual virgins,” and it’s not because of the things we choose to enjoy but rather how passionately we enjoy them.
A bulk of Dark Horse deals with Abe falling for a clinically depressed woman, Miranda (Selma Blair). She seems to be the first person to show him any sign of reciprocating interest and he eagerly jumps head first into the prospect of a long-time relationship – even going so far as to propose marriage on their first date. Their relationship is incredibly awkward and it’s a road I’ve walked before and seen many of my geeky friends go down as well. It becomes more complicated when Abe discovers that Miranda has a communicable disease, Hepatitis B. We all have an ideal for a mate, but nobody will ever match that ideal. Nobody will ever be exactly like us. Geeks like us hate compromise and we have a hard time coping with the fact that the person we choose to fall in love with does not meet our expectations. Hell, that’s not even a geek-centric thing, it’s something everybody does.
Dark Horse is a film that hits pretty close to home because Abe is not a special case. This is how geeks act. Recently there was a viral video about a conversation between two users on Nintendo’s Miiverse that perfectly shows the awkwardness of geeks in love.
Our Depressing Eventuality
I’m not going to spoil the end of Dark Horse outside of saying that it is DEPRESSING. It’s not just depressing in the sense that the audience has become attached to these characters and it’s sad to see what becomes of them. The depressing aspect is realizing that this could be what becomes of us geeks. It’s not a theme of “change who you are or this will happen to you,” it’s more like “if you aren’t aware of the flaws in your personality – this could happen to you.”
Todd Solondz is a wonderful storyteller but his movies are some of the darkest, most depressing things I’ve ever seen. They’re usually billed as dark comedies but I’ve not found anything funny in Welcome to the Dollhouse or Happiness or Dark Horse. They are fantastic films, that offer a wonderful insight into humanity, but they hit far too close to home to be funny. Dark Horse shows us geeks a mirror and and it’s a difficult watch. Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with being a geek – nor does Dark Horse say there is. There is nothing evil or wrong about the nature of Abe. Abe’s problem is that he’s not aware of how his actions and his personality affect others – and that is a problem some of us geeks have. Dark Horse asks people to not to change who they are but to be aware of who they are. Yes, we geeks have problems with accepting the challenges of adulthood, we don’t WANT to put our childish things behind us, we don’t WANT to tolerate compromise, we don’t WANT to make friends with people outside of our comfort zone – and we don’t have to. But we do need to be aware that our actions do affect our lives.
Dark Horse is a wonderful movie and I highly recommend it to all, especially geeks. It’s not a picture of our depressing lives but rather a depressing and enlightening look at our rather hum-drum and not particularly extraordinary lives.