I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again.”
The lyrics to Bill Callahan’s Jim Cain depict a slow, cyclic existence, full of quiet contemplation and lacking any distinct direction. Given the intense understatement and meandering, directionless narrative of I USED TO BE DARKER, it would appear Matthew Porterfield was inspired to accommodate Bill Callahan into more than just his film’s title.
I USED TO BE DARKER concerns Northern Irish runaway, Taryn (Deragh Campbell) who seeks refuge with her musically inclined aunt and uncle, Kim and Bill (Kim Taylor and Ned Oldham, respectively), in Baltimore after finding herself in trouble in Ocean City. She doesn’t realise, however, that they are in the midst of a separation, during which they’re attempting to remain on amicable terms for the sake of their daughter, Abby (Hannah Gross). As the family dynamics change and fracture, each member must find new things to hold onto, and form new relationships in light of the separation.
The impetus of the film is on its ponderous atmosphere…
The emphasis of I USED TO BE DARKER is set primarily on its characters, meticulously chronicling the effects of a complex separation. The effect is an incredibly slow, drawn out narrative with no particularly compelling or operatic developments whatsoever. The impetus of the film is on its ponderous atmosphere, on ensuring that the audience experience the disbanding relationships at an appropriately realistic pace. Whether or not the characters create a genuine sense of intrigue enough to warrant sticking with is debatable, but given Porterfield’s cult-indie status it seems likely that a large audience will approve of his approach.
Regardless of its divisiveness, there are elements to the film that are genuinely engrossing. It is heavily implied that the cause of Kim and Bill’s split is the former’s refusal to accept that a lasting musical career has evaded her. Bill, in comparison, has moved on from what was presumably a prosperous but short-lived fame, and their split is a result of his decision. It is in these brief moments that the film is at its most intriguing, Ned Oldham doing an impressive job of conveying Bill’s mix of anger and self-pity. Unfortunately, because of the lack of a driving narrative these moments are fragmented, scattered amongst long sequences with little development.
…art house aesthetic over a compelling story.
I USED TO BE DARKER will undoubtedly split opinion. The fragmented approach to storytelling, lack of narrative developments and slow portrayal of unravelling relationships will be appreciated and loathed in equal measure it would seem. His film is too concerned with being musically inclined, choosing an art house aesthetic over a compelling story. Matthew Porterfield deserves credit for his method, but the outcome is not entirely effective.