Fantastic Fest Review: DARKLAND – Vigilantism Made Relevant

Fill that hole in your heart with vengeance.

Loss through violence. The failure of society. Vigilante justice.

It’s a story told ad nauseam through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Mark of Zorro, to Batman and his caped contemporaries. A nexus between our collective fascination for justified lawlessness and secret identity, skirting outside the legal bounds of a system that fails its citizenry, delivering swift, masked justice to the evil and the corrupt. It’s also a formula that’s grown stale in recent times, even as countless creators attempt to bring the fantastical down to the level of “realism.” Therein of course lies the central failure, a fatal flaw in approach that the incredible, atmospheric Darkland circumvents by not trying to lampshade any of these stories. It is neither deconstruction of fantasy nor satire or self-reflexive commentary, and if I were to hazard a guess, comicbook superheroes were likely the last thing on writer-director Fenar Ahmad’s mind but for a vague semblance of structure. Where the flimsy foundation of the “real superhero” fails, Darkland succeeds by being about something central to our modern culture: the ever-shifting notion of modern culture itself.

At this moment in time, there is no more pressing question than that of who we are as a people.

Darkland is a revenge tale where revenge is at once central and incidental. It is the driving force behind the actions of Zaid, a well to do first-generation Danish-Iraqi doctor, whose expulsion from the cultural cocoon of privilege begins with the murder of his brother. It’s also merely the catalyst for cultural and personal self-reflection. Zaid enjoys the spoils of Europe’s upper echelons, wining and dining with Danes of European descent including his expecting wife. He’s separated himself from his Iraqi neighborhood and the language and culture of his parents, an immigrant couple who still tune in to the news for a glimpse of a homeland they left behind. Zaid, on the other hand, has neither concern for a war-torn country he’s never known, nor sympathy for the Arabic-speaking Muslim teens who find themselves caught up in violent street gangs. That is, of course, until the violent fallout of trying to keep one’s head above water by any means necessary claims his younger brother Yasin.

Zaid could’ve helped Yasin at any time. He could’ve helped any of his kin by simply accepting that that’s what they were; his people, his culture, his very flesh and blood, but the picture of “those people” drilled into his head by all corners of 21st century society led to a willful separation. Were it up to him, the cops would be profiling everyone who looked like one of “those” degenerates. But at the end of the day, even the police see Zaid as one of “them,” and they see Yasin and his ilk as unworthy of dignity. The European Muslims are their own problem, and any problems they create are seen as a function of their nature as opposed to common circumstance. The central irony of Yasin’s death is that it was inevitable; the fallout of a parallel drug economy for outsiders to sustain themselves in a system that rejects them. And as uncomfortable as it might be to accept, a system of benevolence set up by Yasin’s killers because folks like Zaid turn a blind eye towards the plight of their people.

It’s in understanding his various failures – Yasin, his parents, his own culture – that Zaid’s journey truly begins. It isn’t until nearly an hour into the film that any form of vengeance is exacted (Zaid’s bike-helmet antihero is admittedly alluring, so the film has a fine line to walk), but along the way we’re allowed to truly experience the emotional fallout of Yasin’s murder. Guilt drives Zaid’s training, sleuthing and violent investigations, but it’s a guilt that never feels abstract. It’s constantly tied to people and conversations that make Zaid look inward, at his own cultural self-loathing and at his complicity in allowing violence to thrive, acting only as a band-aid when someone ends up in the emergency room.

As the need to externalize his guilt approaches, turning Zaid’s self-hatred into self-transformation, so too does the fallout of vengeance begin to creep into his life before he’s even thrown the first punch. Zaid is on a collision course with a monster he never wanted to confront – his place in the world, a status he thought he could easily ignore – and in doing so he turns his back on his wife, child and stability. In essence, another fallout of his creeping guilt telling him what he does and does not deserve, putting his family in danger in the process.

If Darkland has one major flaw, it’s that it meanders on its way to its climax, filling the gap between lighting the fuse of vengeance and the explosion going off. It feels like an unstructured detour, as Zaid runs helter-skelter between people and places that bear the brunt of reprisal against him. That said, Fenar Ahmad’s control of lurid atmosphere and Dar Salim’s incredible central performance paper over the lull with finesse. They take Zaid away from the obvious superhero parallels and turn him into a pro-active Colonel Kurtz, consumed more and more by the madness surrounding him, reflecting it in action and face paint.

Salim’s internalization of all that is Zaid – care and malice in equal measure – is the film’s silently bubbling through-line, a dissonant dichotomy reflected on all sides. The villains’ braggadocious underground fight rings serve to keep their people fed. Zaid’s newfound penchant for violence is in direct clash with his career as a surgeon. Things get so out of hand that he even has to operate on one of the youths he beats within an inch of his life.

The fallout of violence in Darkland is palpable. It takes as much toll on the soul as it does on the body, stemming from both personal guilt and cultural desperation. It’s an extension of the world we create when we try to sweep away our problems, a world that isn’t some kind of metaphor, but one that’s right at our doorstep. That’s what makes this revenge fantasy real. It doesn’t prop up vigilante justice as a choice, despite the action-y goodness through narrative agency. If anything, it’s a warning of inevitability, using its bilingual, black-clad symbol of vengeance as an ugly personification of where we’re headed if we don’t stop to examine where we are.