Billed on the Fantastic Fest website as simply ‘one day in the twisted love life of a serial killer,’ JT Mollner’s Strange Darling is one of the most exciting films screening at this year’s festival. Mollner’s feature is a twisted thriller that uses its non-linear narrative structure to great effect. The opening sequence advises the audience that Strange Darling is to be a ‘thriller in six chapters’ and it certainly delivers. Strange Darling stars Willa Fitzgerald and Kyle Gallner as the characters billed in the opening credits, ‘the lady’ and ‘the demon.’ Add to this a scrawl of text and narration proclaiming Strange Darling to be a dramatisation of an American serial killer who operated from 2018 – 2020, and the film has all the ingredients of something very intriguing. Our Strange Darling review continues below.
The narrative begins in the middle, kicking off during chapter three. It is a strange and bold entry point to the story, but one necessary for the rest of it to work. Strange Darling enjoys teasing the viewer, toying with their expectations. The twisting non-linear structure affords opportunities for plenty of shocks and surprises. Were Strange Darling to be told in a linear format, it would still retain some tension, but Mollner’s refusal to stick to convention is a wise decision. When told out of order the narrative becomes a mental jigsaw puzzle that the viewer has to slowly piece together. As each new chapter is revealed, fresh information spins and distorts other events, and the final picture is very different to the one in mind during Strange Darling’s first section.
It is not simply Mollner’s inventive narrative framework that enables Strange Darling to excel; the cinematography is also lush. Shot entirely on 35mm, Strange Darling has that gritty grindhouse quality to its aesthetic. In the era of digital being king, this step back in time creates atmosphere, and even though new, it ensures that Strange Darling feels instantly timeless. Behind the lens as director of photography is Giovanni Ribisi who shows a keen eye for composition. A standout scene comes during chapter five as the camera stalks a character in one long take around a building. Not only is this an impressively realised instance of choreography between camera and actor, it also injects an almost unhealthy amount of tension into the film. Both he and Mollner have worked hard to capture that essence of thrillers from the seventies and eighties whilst still maintaining their own sense of style.
An impressive element of the visuals of Strange Darling is its use of colour. Whilst many locations are natural in colour palette, Mollner jazzes them up with pops of red. From character hair colour, to costumes, to vehicles, these hues are vibrant and almost overpowering on occasion. This red is contrasted in other moments with ice neon blues, the pairing reinforcing allegiances and sneakily coding the characters attached to them. The heady imagery is accompanied by a kick-ass score from Craig DeLeon and original music from Z Berg. A cover of Nazareth’s ‘Love Hurts’ reinforces that seventies era nostalgia whilst bringing the song up to date.
Serial killer movies are always popular and Strange Darling is sure to follow suit. Its success however, will come from how it unpicks, subverts and deviates from this well-worn genre. Praise for this lies with the performances of Fitzgerald and Gallner. The two work beautifully on screen together, the intimacy between the pair is palpable. The narrative sees their characters veer from seduction to stand-offs and back again thanks to the nonlinear structure and yet there is something within their performances that carries through, regardless of what chapter is playing.
Fitzgerald is mesmerising as Lady and this, coupled with an excellent turn in Mike Flanagan’s The Fall of the House of Usher, is sure to see her career level up. Gallner remains as consistent as ever. Both in terms of his performance and ability to sniff out an exciting project. When placed in close proximity together the duo spark with an extended motel room scene almost setting the film on fire with how hard they commit to conjuring a specific mood. The scene in question teeters between erotic and disturbing, aggressive and playful, the constant sway keeping the viewer on edge, but also drawing them further in.
Quentin Tarantino made the nonlinear story format popular with Pulp Fiction. What followed after that was a decade of movies trying to replicate the success by taking any story and telling it out of order. This was hit and miss until eventually the pattern petered out. Now Mollner proves that there are still innovations to be made with the format. Here’s hoping this exciting thriller follows the trajectory of Pulp Fiction as Mollner is one very exciting voice in cinema.
Strange Darling was reviewed at Fantastic Fest 2023.
A clever modern throwback to the Grindhouse era, Strange Darling manages to be seductive, sensual and unnerving simultaneously. Its unconventional structure enriches the story, making it one thriller too tantalising to pass by.