Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. The bumper sticker implies that if we didn’t have access to guns, our cavemen brains and violent natures would still compel us to murder each other with whatever we could get our hands on. A gun is just a tool—it’s innate in our delinquent species to wipe each other out.
Super Dark Times certainly agrees with that premise, at least regarding men. It’s a coming-of-age nightmare that starts with an accidental death and keeps mounting larger and larger horrors upon its teenage friends. These friends—Zach (Owen Campbell, oscillating between milquetoast and overeager), Josh (Charlie Tahan, creepy as hell), Daryl (Max Talisman, damned with a South Park fat kid caricature) and Charlie (Sawyer Barth, precociously competent)—are played with all the nascent vulgarity one should expect of early high school: eager to both impress and overcompensate in their search for dictional maturity. “Skittles are fucking delicious,” Charlie says, carbon-dating the quartet between children and adults.
Their friendship develops easily and naturally, though their dynamic’s accuracy is—like teen boys themselves—tiring to the point of grating. There’s no pastiche here like Superbad or any other R-rated high school comedy of its ilk, there is only the unflinchingly douchey mise-en-scene, of which Super Dark Times is a master, its landscape speckled with juvenile graffiti and parking lot shenanigans. Horniness and profanity are the language in which its poetry is written, the only language its characters know. That’s why, when things go terribly wrong in the forest, when a samurai sword is involved in places it shouldn’t be, we understand that the survivors have no idea how to cope. They can barely go three words without an f-bomb.
Josh and Zach are at odds even before tragedy sets them off into their own horrible spirals, even if they keep their resentment bottled. They both pine for Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino, wonderful as a charming goofball who grows more serious and distant over time) but her affection lies with Zach, tossing more into the mounting hormonal tempest within these stressed teens. And of course: a samurai sword. Nothing screams “stupid suburban excess” or “Frank Miller comic” or “I’m white and troubled and should probably write in a journal about it” like a kid owning a samurai sword. (Or shurikens or nunchucks.) It’s the perfect weapon for a film simultaneously obsessed with and distracted from burgeoning toxic masculinity.
Super Dark Times, like many of its creepy modern kin, uses dream sequences and surreal natural imagery to great effect. Its opening scene captures the death of a deer, maybe the world’s most inherently unsettling animal whose only sin is freaking out in a world that simply isn’t built for it. We begin to believe, over the course of the film, that perhaps people are similarly ill-fated. Guilt boils over into suspicion and the resulting hypothesis appears like words traced on fogged glass: Maybe what happened in the woods wasn’t an accident.
Lynchian hallucinations play with our conceptions of speed and distance with such slow-burn dread, and cuts so quick, the film assumes its audience will be thinking about what they might have seen long after the fact. Super Dark Times is best when it sticks with this gamble. A sequence referencing Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist is completely affecting, bullseye-ing the film’s central conflicted friendship without saying a word.
Ironically, first-time director Kevin Phillips shines most in his film’s blackest moments. When he’s bogged down in the high school lifestyle—parties, conversations with mom (Amy Hargreaves, amazing in a bit part), phone calls and endlessly unsatisfying conversations between Zach and Allison—we lose track of what’s important instead of plying the tension so well-established in earlier scenes.
Though beautifully shot by Eli Born as ’90s ultra-Americana, Super Dark Times never seems sure which way to make us look. Which isn’t a good thing. The growing mystery between Josh and Zach is never quite clear enough in its intentions to be sinister, yet never implied enough to be foreboding. The film splits the difference, feeding us too much information too late to continue building its crescendo of teen desire (for sex and violence) into a triumphant climax. Phillips simply tries to do too much. Without a focus on procedural details like its emotion-fermenting twin The Night Of, the intensely confused and threatened masculinity of its characters, or its sublimely strange descent into pubescent madness, the film sputters. Though, its good times? Super dark.
Director: Kevin Phillips
Writers: Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski
Starring: Owen Campbell, Charlie Tahan, Elizabeth Cappuccino, Max Talisman, Sawyer Barth, Amy Hargreaves
Release Date: Premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter..