(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: When it comes to murder, seduction and betrayal, pulp-fiction author Dan Dark (Robert Downey Jr.) wrote the book. But now, he’s living it. Languishing in a hospital with an immobilizing condition, Dark has lost himself in the fictional world of his alter ego, a hardboiled detective and dance-band singer living in 1950s Los Angeles. As Dark’s grasp on reality continues to slip, he’s placed under the care of an enigmatic psychiatrist (Mel Gibson). Together they plunge into the mystery of Dark’s psyche, where everyone is suspect and danger waits at every turn.
– From DVD Production Notes
The Singing Detective is what I would call a beautiful disaster. Most people don’t like it and the film was considered a critical and financial failure. I understand why. It was a low-budget, independent film- at least by Hollywood standards. It wasn’t easy to market to a mass audience. The plot was difficult to understand. Americans had no idea who Dennis Potter was (and apparently didn’t care). And above all, Robert Downey Jr. wasn’t a box office draw when it came out.
The DVD I own was given to me by someone who didn’t want it. I was happy to take it off their hands. I’ve always thought of Detective as a brave effort, and for more reasons than one. Upon watching it again I realized there is more: it’s visually striking, funny, and ultimately ahead of its time.
The first time I saw the film was in 2003, when it screened at Sundance. I thought it was challenging and took a lot of risks. This film has absolutely no interest in explaining itself, and that’s part of the reason why people dismissed it. You are practically plunged into a character’s waking life, subconscious, memories and creative efforts all at once and without a bungee cord. What’s worse, practically everything about this character and what is on his mind is unpleasant.
The good news: this character is being played by Robert Downey Jr. He had big shoes to fill since Detective was a remake of a BBC miniseries that aired in 1986, starring Michael Gambon (who’s Dumbledore, for God’s sake). On top of that the character of Dan Dark is… difficult. He is angry, bitter, misogynistic and, above all, hates himself. This isn’t an easy character to play.
Thing is, Downey Jr. has the ineffable ability to keep an audience interested no matter what he says or does. So as far as casting goes? Downey Jr. it was, and Downey Jr. it (kind of) had to be.
However, it almost wasn’t. Detective was shot during a period of time where no one would touch Downey Jr. with a ten foot pole. The insurance needed to employ him was very high and he was on probation, unable to leave Los Angeles. He had been dropped from a Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda for this reason (Winona Ryder as well) and was having trouble finding work or getting taken seriously.
In the end it was Mel Gibson who fought and paid for him to star in this film, and since he was producing and co-starring in the project he had some major pull. So basically: without him, Downey Jr. wouldn’t have gotten a job. Say what you will about Mel Gibson, but he has helped some people when they’ve been down. After Detective, people began employing Downey Jr. again.
Upon its release many reviews centered on Downey Jr.’s personal life rather than what they saw. It’s easy to see why. There were definite parallels between him and Dan Dark. Both were recovering from something debilitating. Both were trying to get on their feet again. Both had issues. In his audio commentary director Keith Gordon said the biggest difference was that Downey Jr. is a sweet, humble, and rather generous person who rarely gets angry. Dark is the complete opposite of that, and every character who deals with him is subject to insults and verbal abuse.
Actually, he wants to jam that pen into her eye. Just a guess.
Downey Jr. does vitriol well of course, spitting out threats and put-downs through clenched teeth. His bitterness is rotting him from the inside out, seething through his skin (literally) and every line he utters. This is counter-balanced by sudden bursts of song, which freaks most viewers out, but the thing is we’re in Dark’s head. That’s the film. There is no objective point of view. This is the way he sees things, and this is how he numbs himself.
While doing press for Requiem For A Dream (2000), director Darren Aronofsky noted that film had exhausted itself when it came to the idea of “outer life.” The new frontier of film was capturing characters’ “inner life” and immersing audiences in subjective realities. In a way he was right. Films in the style of Dream and Detective have become more common and moved from the indie/independent/experimental to the mainstream. I couldn’t help but notice that this kind of film trended in 2010: Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Gaspar Noé’s Enter The Void and Aronofksy’s Black Swan were built as subjective narratives. I’d argue that Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World was as well.
This especially applies to Detective, but it was released way back when in ye olde 2003. It was a cinematic exercise in empathy and approached storytelling in a completely different way. We begin to see the “whys” of Dan Dark in the form of musical numbers, flashbacks and unfinished pages he is writing in his head. The only scenes that solidly confront Dark’s issues are his appointments with Dr. Gibbon (a Jim Broadbent-esque Gibson), and like everything else they are linked to his sexual neuroses. Once you figure out their origins you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy.
And believe me, if there’s one thing this film got right, it’s the sexual neuroses part. The sex, too. Along with David Mackenzie, Gordon is one of the only contemporary directors who shoots sex scenes in an uncomfortable, truthful way where you believe it is actually happening. You actually cringe at how real it looks. This is crucial to the film and understanding Dark’s character. Sex seems to rule his life for better or for worse, and you see it in all of its bare-boned sordidness.
Other than what I’ve mentioned above, Detective is what I stated before: a beautiful disaster. By the end of the film all bets are off and it begins to collapse under its own weight. What makes me return to it is its audacity. It’s also wonderful to look at and the performances are solid. What’s more, I think of it as a stepping stone to Downey Jr. resurrecting his career.
But above all I think it’s the “inner life” of this film that makes me respect it. It’s a theme that will appear in the Z To A series again, but I’m glad this is the first film to represent it. Many believe the film is a misstep as a whole, but I like to think of it as a beginning.