In Through the Glass Darkly, heinous crimes are committed and covered up, prominent small-town figures reek of corruption, and snarky but good-hearted heroes drown their sorrows with liquor and relentless quips.
If you’re a fan of classic noir with all of its stylized dialogue and its invitation for you, the viewer, to help solve a mystery as it unfolds, this feature from writer and director Lauren Fash might be right up your alley. The film wears its inspirations on its sleeve, but Fash imbues the story with modern sensibilities of women-centric trauma and empowerment. She also tosses in elements of psychological thrillers while she’s at it, making for a solidly entertaining and mindful movie.
Set in a small town that never changes named Elrod, the film stars Robyn Lively as Charlie, who provides narration throughout. Charlie’s young daughter, Lily (Kinsley Isla Dillon), went missing some time ago, and she’s been taking it about as well as one could expect. Charlie – who Lively plays with a gruff, indignant drawl – spends her days drinking at the local bar and hounding the sheriff (Stan Houston) over not doing enough to find her daughter. Her loud and public displays of dissatisfaction earn her a poor reputation around town, or rather, a worse one than she had to begin with.
Elrod, a substitute for almost any other small American borough you might find yourself in, is a place where it’s not just the outward appearance that refuses to evolve, but the mentality as well. It’s a place where the bar’s entire aesthetic is just American flags and the sheriff’s department proudly displays the Confederate flag at the front desk without a hint of irony. It’s a place where a single disgustingly wealthy and obviously criminal family (Michael Trucco and Judith Ivey) basically rule as monarchs. Corruption and bigotry are the law of the land here, and it’s made life increasingly unbearable for someone like Charlie and her wife, Angela (Bethany Anne Lind).
When a second girl goes missing, all eyes in town fall on Charlie. But Charlie stares right back, and the evident connection between this girl’s disappearance and that of her daughter spurs her into action to solve the crime herself. She forms an unlikely and wary alliance with Amy (Shanola Hampton), a reporter who comes to Elrod looking for her first big story. The two uncover a tangled web of lies and violence that could turn the town on its head, but Charlie’s own demons threaten to jeopardize the investigation more than anything else.
Through the Glass Darkly is told exclusively from Charlie’s perspective, and it’s clearly an unreliable one. Fash, along with co-writer Susan Graham and editors Lisa Zeno Churgin and Adriaan van Zyl, chop up the film’s scenes with numerous jerky cuts and murky, dreamlike sequences that could either be memories or outright hallucinations. Charlie’s mind is one shattered by trauma and guilt and numbed with pills and alcohol, so the film blurs the line between reality and delusion for both her and the audience. It can be tedious knowing that the story is revving up for a twist or two, but the payoff of sticking with it manages to be worth the wait; it’s unique and instantly engaging.
The film’s strongest feature is Lively, who keeps the stylized film remarkably grounded with an exceptional performance. The actor keeps a fragility beneath Charlie’s hardened exterior, and you can’t be sure whether she’s eventually going to blow someone’s head off or just break down crying. She’s a compelling and instantly sympathetic protagonist, who’s full story is revealed in rearranged chunks throughout the film, allowing for both it and Lively’s performance to be explored in a way other than the usual chronological order.
Through the Glass Darkly is a story of women helping women and seeking justice when there is none. As Amy bluntly puts it, “I’m tired of men doing fucked up shit and getting away with it”. The film naturally leans into its social allegories without them being overbearing or taking away from Charlie’s individual story. The result is a smart and reliably entertaining tale of crime and regret.
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Through the Glass Darkly is a solid psychological noir of small town crime and bigotry.
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