Why this film?: Because for all of Meryl’s non-nominated films, successful or not, this was the one that seemed to have almost no reputation among her fans from my cursory investigations, even though its negative reviews were known to me. The unusual matching of Streep to such a politically heavy topic and a foreign director made this absence about die-hards intriguing instead of dispiriting. The Seduction of Joe Tynan, lauded as it was not just for Streep but for Barbara Harris and for being a lightweight but utterly charming left-wing and proto-West Wing drama, was the closest runner up.
The film: Dark Matter is the kind of film that is so overwhelmed by its thematic content and so underserved by its filmmaking that it feels as though it should’ve been made in a different medium. The story of a promising adult Chinese grad student taken under his professor’s wing only to be cruelly tossed aside after an ideological and scientific break with the professor, culminating in the student killing three people before taking his own life. Loosely based on an actual school shooting from the 90’s, is deeply in conversation with racially charged power dynamics in academia and the blurry lines between relying on and exploiting students, appreciating and fetishizing a culture and its people, assimilating into a white majority and shedding all aspects of your culture to get a better footing in someone else’s. To its credit, Dark Matter never seems cowed by all of the topics it’s trying to discuss, though it’s unclear how well it’s actually engaging with them as opposed to simply showing us a story with very obvious resonances and leaving us to acknowledge them. Its ideas are omnipresent, but they’re never as stitched to the story as they could be. Chen Shi-zheng’s direction alternates between different stylistic registers to delineate the mental state of its protagonist, none of which serve the story well individually or contrasting with each other. The arc into Greek tragedy isn’t totally fulfilled by the direction, by its stylistic choices or its performances, but Dark Matter is such an unusual confluence of thematic density and misapplied artistic gambits that it’s hard to discount as an outright failure rather than a fascinating attempt towards a massive proclamation that it never knows how to get a grip on.
What would’ve been the best way to serve this story? Bill Shebar’s screenplay is able to track the student Liu Xing’s downfall, keeping the uncomfortable dynamics of his interactions with the faculty and other students in play. The triumvirate of Liu Xen, professor of cosmology Paul Reiser, and university benefactor Joanna Silver are written with enough ambiguities and motivations for the actors to play with. The near uninterrupted arc towards tragedy is traced out decently enough that its artists would have plenty of room to interpret the material distinctly while still serving it. Even if scenes like five students dressed up as cowboys in a hokey recreation of a Western as the teachers quip about the fastest gun in the East, or the existence of a dumb blonde girlfriend with as much arbitrary impact as the born-to-be-dumped girlfriend in Whiplash, speak to some poor impulses, these aren’t the kind of hindrances that should stop a movie cold. In fact, they make up very little of the film’s run time, with the film primarily focusing on the racially and intellectually charged dynamics between Liu Xing, Reiser, Silver, and the other students. It’s not a brilliant script but it is a serviceable one, certainly the kind that could be the backbone for a filmmaker to take it somewhere interesting. The topics are so provocative that they beg attention even amidst inhospitable surroundings, and Dark Mattershould be more engaged with them than it ultimately is. The film isn’t unsalvageable at its base, but Chen Shi-zheng’s direction never finds the right key to pitch the material in among the several he tries out.
It’s the inability to find a storytelling tone that actually benefits the material that most inhibits Dark Matter. Shi-zheng’s switching between unaffected to highly manipulated images remains firmly rooted in Liu Xing’s headspace, but neither presentation clicks fully to the story or connects well to each other. The most affected scenes always relate to Liu Xing being dismissed by Reiser and his colleges, having his faith in these men shattered as his research is questioned or dismissed. The workmanlike presentation of the rest of the film is decidedly average, the best thing about it being that it’s able to carry the mood or idea of a scene even as the directorial style barely imposes on the story. Even more stylistically discordant are several montage sequences with loud, overbearing music choices which seem to project a mood that would’ve been prominent without going to all the effort, and are almost exclusively used for transitions between scenes. Liu Xing explores his new campus, rides a bike, sets himself to wreak vengeance on the men who ruined his future, sometimes with the editing turning these scene into slo-mo, sometimes with incredibly portentous images being paired with incredibly portentous music.
What inspired these sequences? What inspired Shi-zheng to film his movie in these alternating styles? Dark Matter’s heavy themes and inevitable arc towards tragedy – one Shi-zheng doesn’t foreshadow, though it’s doubtful his approach would allow it anyways – arguably benefits from full throttle into heightened parable. Clearly part of the intention is a systemic indictment of college academia and what it does to students who try to stray outside established norms, but it’s a hindrance that Shi-Zheng seems so focused on these particular characters and these particular instances rather than focusing on the larger machinations that make a tragedy like this inevitable based on how these types play against each other. Elena is able to play so persuasively as an stab against class disparity in Russian society because Andrey Zvyagintsev and his performers are able to pitch the characters and the scenarios towards clear archetypes while feeding an atmosphere that’s able to make us understand why everyone is acting the way they do. The allegory is fully informed by its politics and realized in such a controlled and unusual way that the characters, the story, and the themes are completely in sync. Dark Matter attains no such hold on its thematic content, with the idea informing each scene almost hovering above the actual film without integrating in the slightest.
Liu Ye, Aidan Quinn, and Meryl Streep have all clearly thought about their characters, though all three show significant lapses in their work, and their choices seem limited as the plot surges into more distressing angles. Ye is able to provide a stable center for the film to revolve around, especially in his early scenes excitedly adjusting to college life in America with the other Chinese students. He carries Liu’s arc as well as he can, but isn’t playing the kind of personality type that could ever pull a gun on someone. Liu seems to blindly rub Reiser the wrong way out of sheer earnestness, which isn’t a bad way to earn sympathy but isn’t planting any seeds that make gunning down his professors a plausible plan of action. Quinn’s performance in the last third is angry and affronted but never fully connects to the fact that he’s sabotaging Liu Xing’s graduate thesis, as though he’s simply a disgruntled professor mad his student went behind his back and did everything wrong anyways. Streep succumbs to similar pitfalls, coming off as totally unaware that Reiser intentionally sabotaged Liu in her plea that he do something to help Liu find an institute that will accept him despite having not graduated. Still, she’s responsible for the film’s most delicate scene in her next appearance, guiding Liu through how to sell cosmetics while quietly wondering how this boy with so much potential ended up as a door-to-door salesman. Streep is at least able to blend into her surrounds without seeming out of place, but it’s jarring to see Sophie Zawistowska cringe at the mispronunciations of foreign students and interact so inappropriately with another culture. All of them are connected to the material in some ways but seem reticent to suggest nastier edges to their characters. Liu’s ego and sexual interests, Reiser’s pride and racist exploitation of his students, Joanna’s selfishness and questionable fascination with Chinese culture, all are indicated in dialogue or in scene construction but aren’t ever played by the actors. The film’s lack of ambiguity in its characterizations is an increasingly stubborn hurdle as it goes, with the performers adding no subtext into their scenes even as it lurks menacingly around them like Toni Collette sitting on her ceiling.
There are only two significant characters in Dark Matter besides Liu, Reiser, and Joanna. One is a dim-witted and well meaning woman played by Taylor Schilling, who works at a tea shop and shows up in four scenes as an ostensible love interest for Liu whose scenes go absolutely nowhere, not just narratively or romantically but geographically, never straying farther than right outside her place of work. The other is another Chinese student who changes his name to Laurence Feng, and is played by Lloyd Suh. Laurence is the character most burdened with the film’s philosophical questions about race and privilege and academic success, having changed his original Chinese name to Laurence before having his newborn son baptized in the Christian faith and pitching a grad thesis that coheres perfectly with the Reiser model, unlike Liu’s thesis, which contradicts Reiser’s theory completely. Suh doesn’t quite have room to give a full characterization, but his is the only role that’s able to connect fully with the ideas in the script and a flesh and blood person that carries them out. His motivations are transparent, his scheming as forward as his intelligence. We’re not allowed to think he was chosen over Liu solely because of academic racism and elitism, even as those were undoubtedly reasons behind his being selected. He’s a doting husband and father, and the final sight of his wife asking if Laurence has finished his speech while passing a silent Liu shortly after the man has killed Laurence, Reiser, and another professor is unexpectedly moving in a way the film isn’t easily able to achieve.
Dark Matter ultimately winds up somewhere closer to a film like Stonewall, eager to tell a story about something big and important without any of the proper tools to do so, whatever its advantages may be. It’s not offensive, it doesn’t cater to the wrong audience, and its ideas are bubbling palpably underneath all the mess that it’s giving us. But it is first and foremost a mess, one that has no idea how to actually tell the story it wants to tell us. Granted, Dark Matter’s themes are far more intellectual and its missteps are far less repugnant than Stonewall’s, but its mistakes seem even more avoidable in terms of tone and directorial approach. How could this project go so wrong, going out with an incredibly dull thud even as some scenes sparks to life? It’s the kind of failure you almost feel bad about putting down for all the ambition it has, for trying to talk about so many things at once that so few films even attempt to discuss, and yet there’s no possible way to recommend it except as a how-to guide of how not to make a movie at all.