Pet Sematary. The Other Side of the Door. Wake Wood. That one segment of Dead of Night. If the history of horror movies has taught us anything, it's that nothing good can come out of using rituals/black magic/spells/etc. in order to bring back your dead child, and yet I never take their lessons seriously - if my kid was taken from me you can bet I would try anything and everything to bring him back. At least, until now. The Irish film A Dark Song, from first-time feature director Liam Gavin, doesn't go with the usual approach of bringing the kid back in Act One and letting the consequences inform the rest of the movie - it focuses entirely on the ritual itself, and it's not as simple as burying the kid in a certain spot or saying a few chants over a symbol you draw on the ground. "Will it be awful", our heroine asks the man putting her through this process. His simple, ominous reply? "Yep."
As it happens, this ritual (which isn't dead-kid specific, it apparently allows you to ask for and receive anything you want) takes six months to complete, requires absolute devotion and isolation, and basically seems more like the boot camp you must endure to become a Navy Seal instead of the usual (presumably made up) movie hocus-pocus. Hell, even before the six month isolation period starts, our protagonist Sophia (Catherine Walker) can only eat between dusk and dawn for four weeks, followed by three days of full-blown hardcore fasting. Only then can they start, first by drawing a circle of salt around the house so nothing can come in (and "all will be lost" if they venture out) and then engaging in all manner of preparation - speaking the incantations, cleansing processes, drawing symbols on their bodies, interrogations... it's not particularly pleasant, and neither Sophia or Joseph (Steve Oram), who is her guide (and will also get whatever he wants) can keep from breaking down during the process. One will want to back out at one point, only to have to keep the other from doing the same a few scenes later. In other words, Gavin (who also wrote the script) doesn't want it to look easy, which you as the viewer can hope will pay off in a slightly happier ending than these sort of movies usually offer - if they go through all that just to be offed by the resurrected son like so many cinematic grieving parents before them, it'd be a pretty major bummer.
As you can expect, the point here is the journey, not the destination - the horror element of resurrection or whatever evil things might come along with the spell didn't interest me as much as the psychological aspect of being forced to stay in a house for six months with someone you didn't quite like (we're never more than five or so minutes away from Joseph bellowing at her for falling asleep, or withholding some of her intentions, or other "offenses"). Neither actor displays much of a physical change of appearance to reflect their long confinement with minimal food, but the actors sell it anyway, watching them break down bit by bit as the ritual takes its toll on them. Gavin manages to find some humor in the situation (ever discuss with someone whether or not it was Wednesday or Thursday? At one point these two wonder if it's March or May), but make no mistake - I'm quite sure I've never seen a film go so far out of its way to de-romanticize the idea of invoking dark magic. Everything I've seen has always been focused on the consequences, to which you can easily think "Well I'll just look out for that" - A Dark Song makes it clear that you're probably not equipped to do it in the first place. In the opening sequence we see how difficult it is just to find a proper location (do the windows face the right direction? Can the floor be drawn on with chalk?), so Gavin wants it to be clear that he's taking his narrative very seriously.
Of course, all of his efforts would go to waste if his actors weren't equipped to be the only two people on-screen for well over 90% of its runtime (even Sophia's flashbacks/dreams are largely solo), but thankfully that's not the case. Walker is terrific, finding the right balance between a very determined and stubborn woman who will not take no for an answer, and a grieving mother under the heavy burden of guilt (her son was kidnapped and then killed). No sane audience member will want to put themselves in her shoes (and I pray no one actually feels like they already are), which could leave you at arm's length from the film, but Walker is able to sell the inner conflict handily, making her sympathetic even though she can be ice-cold to the other people on screen (there's a scene with her sister that could leave you hating Sophia in the hands of a less capable actress). And Oram looks like the guy who'd be an ace scene-stealer in a comedy (he's got a Steve Agee/Brian Posehn kind of look to him), but thankfully doesn't turn into a source of comic relief - there are a few moments of levity like the one described above, but Joseph takes the process too seriously to allow for much in the way of humor. The characters occasionally have heart to hearts, and it's in these scenes we get in his head for a bit, but otherwise it's very much a teacher/student kind of thing as opposed to an equal partnership (it's easy to forget he's up for the same "rewards" as she is, since we're always seeing things from her perspective). This can make him almost seem like an antagonist at times (shades of Whiplash), but Gavin reminds us from time to time that even though he's not the one who initiated the process, he's just as susceptible to its negative consequences as she is.
As I alluded to, the film works better as a drama than a horror movie, at least to my eyes. The basic synopsis will probably recall the movies I listed at the beginning of this review, but it's really nothing like those at all - going in hoping for something in that vein will leave you very disappointed. I would compare it to Kill List on that level; it's horror but not in a way you might expect (or can be easily marketed), relying more on just an ominous tone and the idea that something very sinister and peculiar is afoot, rather than traditional images of identifiable terror. It's got some unnerving moments, to be sure (there's a bit where the voice of her dead son is speaking to her, and "he" says something so utterly chilling that it managed to upset me more than the fact that she lost him in the first place), but this isn't a horror film to watch with a bunch of friends, and you'd probably rather have a cup of tea than a beer while watching. Instead it's the kind that may not be as exciting to watch in the moment (at 100 minutes it could probably benefit from some tightening, to be honest), but will gnaw at you for a few days later as you keep wondering if you could endure what these characters do in order to get the thing you desire most.