There’s a great movie about a group of women getting together to bond and overcome trauma while going on an adventure that eventually turns into a nerve-shredding survival-horror creature feature. That movie is Neil Marshall’s The Descent. Unfortunately, Berkley Brady’s new film Dark Nature, while competently constructed and occasionally quite gruesome, is no The Descent. It’s an agreeable enough thriller that has unwisely cribbed from a beloved modern genre staple and simply can’t measure up to its predecessor.
Beginning with Joy (Hannah Emily Anderson) barely surviving a brutal assault at the hands of her asshole boyfriend Derek (Daniel Arnold), the film then fast-forwards several months to find Joy living an isolated life, seemingly terrified of going outside. Her best friend Carmen (Madison Walsh) is worried, naturally, and convinces Joy to join her on a therapeutic retreat with Dr. Dunley (Kyra Harper), a renowned counselor known for her unorthodox approach to treatment. Also along for the journey are Tara (Helen Belay), sporting multiple self-harm scars, and a former soldier named Shaina (Roseanne Supernault), who’s dealing with intense PTSD. Filmed on location in the mountains of Alberta, Brady and cinematographer Jaryl Lim capture both the natural beauty of the environment and its ruggedness. Totally isolated and with only each other to rely on, the group embarks on an arduous hike while trying to figure out exactly how to open up about their traumas. Shaina is aggressive and sarcastic, while Tara prefers not to talk about it at all. Carmen appears to be the furthest along in her recovery, acting as mother hen to Joy and tamping down conflicts within the group dynamic. But Joy is quiet and withdrawn, despite Dunley’s encouragement.
There’s a lot going on here, and Brady’s screenplay never completely coalesces into something fully satisfying. There’s an art to quickly sketching an ensemble, to giving everyone a personality and direction in limited space, and Brady simply can’t quite crack it. Instead, the movie just lumbers from idea to idea. For her part, Joy is seeing things in the forest, convinced that Derek has somehow followed her, and the film vacillates between suggesting she’s right to be scared and hinting that she might just be losing her mind. Meanwhile, Joy also confronts the doctor over her methods, concerned that she’s putting the group in danger. The other women try to convince Joy that Dunley is on the level, but the film drops this thread almost as soon as it’s introduced. Eventually, the other women start having visions also, replaying their violent pasts over and over as if under a mass hallucination.
The film finally kicks into high gear during its last act, after almost an hour of hemming and hawing. There is indeed an explanation for what’s happening to the women, and it’s nothing so banal as an abusive ex. Dropping all the excess narrative baggage, the film really comes alive once it simplifies its concept and gets down to pure genre brass tacks. Brady shows off some impressive action chops in the home stretch, as the women must evade their pursuer and then traverse a cave system to try and save one of their own. It’s overly familiar, but well-executed all the same. It amounts to a passable-enough exercise, somewhat salvaged in its late-going and mostly notable for its low-budget ambition and focus on female solidarity. But, to put it bluntly, Brady the director needs a better writer.
Published as part of Fantasia Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 6.