Review: Dark Tourist (2013)

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Cast: Michael Cudlitz, Melanie Griffith, Pruitt Taylor Vince
Director: Suri Krishnamma
Country: USA
Genre: Drama | Thriller
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Note: Dark Tourist is now open in limited release and on VOD

Better known under the original title of The Grief Tourist—a better name, incidentally—Dark Tourist opens by defining that term as referring to “one who travels with intent to visit scenes of tragedy or disaster”. It’s a very real phenomenon perhaps more known to us than we might imagine: Jim, the movie’s protagonist, chides those who dare to question his pastime by asking if they think it so strange to visit Ground Zero or Dealey Plaza. It’s a valid point, albeit one that doesn’t quite abate the disconcerting oddity of Jim’s own brand of “tourism”: he, intrigued by the lives of serial killers, visits the scenes of their lives’ key events, and the sites of their crimes.

It takes neither advanced psychiatric training nor storytelling acumen to foresee the direction in which the movie hereafter heads; nor, it quickly becomes evident, are those things prerequisites to scripting said direction.

dark_tourist_2013_4Not just from the title alone, there are evident shades of Dexter’s “dark passenger”, the sobriquet that show gives its serial killer protagonist’s ever-present urge to kill. Dark Tourist plays almost like a Dexter-esque origin story, proposing parallels aplenty between Jim’s upbringing and that of the latest killer to whom he devotes his vacation time. But it’s in more ways than just narratively that the movie invites this comparison: a constant stream-of-consciousness narration provides the primary soundtrack to the film, scenes left silent save for the mumbled whispers of Jim as he laments the childhood mistreatment of his latest obsession. “You could have fixed him,” he angrily thinks at one point, his directed speech a worrying indication of his growing distance from reality.

It takes neither advanced psychiatric training nor storytelling acumen to foresee the direction in which the movie hereafter heads; nor, it quickly becomes evident, are those things prerequisites to scripting said direction. It’s the second screenplay by Frank John Hughes, whose prior credit as scribe was alongside Rick Gomez on Leave, a deeply problematic film whose lacking approach to its characters’ psyches ensured its function as psychological thriller was minimal at best. The very same problem befalls Dark Tourist, which wholly depends upon its ability to construct a complex—even sympathetic—sociopath in the central role, a task Hughes just hasn’t the ability to handle. Overripe tropes of the serial killer thriller permeate his script, leaving the movie to play like little more than Psychology 101: The Motion Picture.

Here is a role filled to the brim and then some, an actor who has given his character life far beyond any he ever had on the page.

dark_tourist_2013_3Such lacking scripting leaves the film as little more than a bare-bones hero’s journey, giving us a perfunctory protagonist and a goal toward which he slowly—if relatively so; the mere 80 minutes help—progresses. Hughes has little to really say about this man, which makes all the more impressive how well Michael Cudlitz hides that fact. As Jim, he is quietly transfixing, clearly deeply and dangerously damaged yet never so much scary for it as just sad. There’s an enamouring quality to his voice, heard so much through the course of the film, that carries the muted pain of a man too long disregarded. The path his movie requires him to follow knows not how best to exploit the complexities of his performance, but that doesn’t preclude their prominent presence. Here is a role filled to the brim and then some, an actor who has given his character life far beyond any he ever had on the page.

The same could be said for Melanie Griffith, who here—playing just her second feature part in a decade—imbues a similarly slight character with a greater depth of emotion than the rest of the movie can hope to muster. She and Cudlitz enact a romance every bit as uninspired as the caricatures they play, yet somehow from their interaction—and in the unassuming way director Suri Krishnamma frames it—springs a sense of humanity otherwise alien to this drab drama. Handling such humanity is far beyond Dark Tourist’s abilities, and the lead’s great work is tantamount to shovelling snow in a blizzard. In that respect, the movie works far more for them than for the viewer: see how much they can salvage from so little.

[notification type=”star”]46/100 ~ BAD. Handling such humanity is far beyond Dark Tourist’s abilities, and the lead’s great work is tantamount to shovelling snow in a blizzard.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.