Mental illness may be the most hazardous minefield in the movies, at least in terms of basic subject matter. Actors and directors alike feel what must be an almost irresistible urge to signal to viewers, by any means at their disposal, when a character is in a dangerously distorted state of mind. Granted, in a free-floating, deliberately alienating mood piece—Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, say, or Lodge Kerrigan’s harrowing Clean, Shaven—aggressive expressionism can pay off big-time. Within the conventional three-act structure of a “normal” movie, however, it’s more often a license to grandstand. You wind up with tic-ridden caricatures of autism (Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets), or with the hyperactive camerawork of Shine, a film that seems to equate madness with dizziness. Whatever the movie’s actually supposed to be about gets buried underneath an avalanche of showy derangement; the crazier our hero gets, the harder it becomes to care.
On the other hand, films that handle mental illness with a modicum of subtlety risk being completely overlooked. After Dark, My Sweet came out in late summer 1990, around the time Hollywood (and the publishing world) rediscovered pulp novelist Jim Thompson. Seen by few in first-run, it was overshadowed by the release of The Grifters a few months later. And I’m not aware of it having amassed any cult following since on home video. But it’s a pungently atmospheric little sleeper, and one of relatively few genre flicks to portray a mentally unsound protagonist as a recognizable human being—someone who really just has one particular screw loose, such that you might not notice unless you happened to stumble against that particular joint. The first post-credits scene, in which Jason Patric wanders into a dive bar and meets femme fatale Rachel Ward, beautifully sets the tone: reasonable, dogged, slightly unstable.
Patric’s career took a semi-permanent nosedive after he replaced Keanu Reeves in the godawful sequel to Speed, and there’s a too-studied quality to even his best performances, in films like Your Friends & Neighbors and Narc. But that quality serves him astonishingly well here. It was Michael Caine, I think, in one of his books about acting, who noted that you play a drunk convincingly by trying desperately to appear sober. In a similar way, Patric’s… uptightness, for lack of a better word, conveys the sense of a man who’s struggling every minute to come across as perfectly ordinary, not realizing how bizarre that makes him seem. Or perhaps he does realize it, on some level. Unlike, say, Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, who isn’t actually crazy, but does have a similar tendency to spout friendly drivel at strangers, Patric demonstrates a touch of self-awareness, flashing a rueful little smile as he tells the pointedly silent barkeep “I can understand you’re probably a little tired.” And he does in fact shut up, at least until somebody new walks in and provides him with an opportunity to start afresh.
That brief period of silence is itself fairly notable. It lasts about 20 seconds, which is a small eternity onscreen when there’s nothing whatsoever happening. Patric takes a long look over his right shoulder at one point, but it isn’t clear what’s caught his attention, and nothing ever comes of this held gaze—it’s apparently just a more-subtle-than-usual indication that his mind is spinning in directions we can’t necessarily fathom. So subtle, in fact, that I need to make a confession: Not having seen this movie in 10 years or more, I had totally forgotten that Patric’s character has escaped from an asylum. (He alludes to the escape in an opening voiceover, just prior to this scene, but I’d skipped past that, thinking it was a silent credit sequence.) Part of what grabbed me was the sheer mundane strangeness of elements like that uneventful silence, which struck me as downright inexplicable until I remembered the character’s backstory. At the same time, those elements never hammer the backstory into your skull. They’re just there.
Like Patric, director James Foley hasn’t exactly had a stellar career over the past couple decades. Apart from his workmanlike adaptation of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, which immediately followed After Dark, he’s helmed forgettable action films like The Corruptor and generic thrillers like Fear—nothing even remotely worthwhile. Which is baffling, because his touch in this scene, and in the film as a whole, is exquisite. Just that initial shot on the street, with the camera panning left to right along a wall to discover Patric, quickly circling him, and then panning right to left past a pillar to rediscover him on the other side, is far more elegant than most of what passes for independent American filmmaking these days. Even more striking is the shot of Rachel Ward’s entrance, which impresses not so much for the Scorsese-style boom-around as for the bizarre absence of a visual punchline. Foley executes a grandiose camera movement expressly designed to settle upon whoever just walked in, then cuts away before we can see more than the person’s hand. Instead, he abruptly returns to a close-up of Patric, and only then gives us a full-on shot of Ward. It’s masterfully unsettling, but not in a way that screams Crazy Dude Syntax. Only upon reflection is there method to the madness.
I do wonder whether any bartender would be this needlessly hostile to one of his only customers, though. As Patric says, he hasn’t done anything—apart from be annoyingly garrulous, which isn’t generally enough to get your beer revoked and your ass 86’d. It’s really just an excuse (in the novel as well as the movie) to engineer a quick knockout punch, as Patric’s character is a former professional boxer as well as an escaped mental patient. And the scene ends so suddenly, as the stunned bartender topples back and smacks his head against some bottles, that I was forced to give you the first few seconds of the following scene, simply because it wouldn’t make any sense otherwise. That smash cut and accompanying flashbulb-strobe effect is another fine example of the way Foley keeps viewers off-balance via omission—the conflict is resolved before we’ve even really had time to register that its beginning, and Patric is already shuffling to the next impending disaster. Throughout the scene, we’re either given too much time to process information, or not nearly enough; both are effective at suggesting a deviant mental state, but at the same time, neither is obtrusive enough to distract us from wanting to find out what happens next. That’s expert visual storytelling.