'Lovely, Dark, and Deep' Is Worth Getting Lost In

Directed by Teresa Sutherland

Starring Georgina Campbell, Nick Blood, Wai Ching Ho

Photo courtesy of XYZ Films

BY Marko DjurdjićPublished Feb 19, 2024

In cinema, forests are often used as a metaphor for the mind — a labyrinth of traps impossible to understand, orient ourselves in or escape from, resulting in a daunting place to be alone. Teresa Sutherland's directorial debut, Lovely, Dark, and Deep, takes this theme to its terrifying and inevitable conclusion, using the forest in highly original yet unfortunately inconsistent ways. 

A cryptic quote from John Muir appears in the opening frame before we're immediately thrust into the film's forest. Sutherland wastes no time introducing a sinister, isolated tone when a backwoods ranger leaves his post, never to be heard from again.

The film then cuts to Lennon (Georgina Campbell), a newly-minted park ranger stationed in the back country of a national park. Lennon has worked her whole life to reach this coveted position, intent on solving a mystery from her past that's inherently tied to these woods. To reveal any more of the plot would do Sutherland's tense, understated script a disservice.

While Lennon interacts sporadically with a number of people, including fellow park ranger Jackson (Nick Blood) and boss/confidante Zhang (Wai Ching Ho), for the most part she's alone with her thoughts in the woods, placing the weight of the film firmly on Campbell's shoulders. Tough, frightened and determined, Campbell elicits palpable empathy through her performance. She's recently appeared in a number of horrors and thrillers (most notably Barbarian and Bird Box Barcelona) and Campbell has proven herself to be an exceptional talent, primed to become a formidable new scream queen with a modern, more assertive twist.

Long sections of forest exploration pass in near silence — an approach that usually leads to some atonal trill, but the ambient sounds of the forest are thankfully treated with respect, heightening the dread. Branko Neskov's intricate sound design makes Lovely, Dark, and Deep feel beautifully realized, filling the screen with cracking tree trunks, rustling vegetation and disembodied voices. Similarly, Rui Poças's lush cinematography feels both intimate and expansive, capturing the grandeur of the forest and Lennon's private moments in her outpost with equal reserve and reverence.

This ability to respect and engage with space is one of the movie's greatest strengths. It understands that the forest is rooted in dichotomy, both delicate and dangerous and large enough to swallow a person whole while feeling entirely claustrophobic. These thoughtful elements build the world into something truly lovely, dark, and deep.

Sutherland, as a writer, is already minted. The Wind is a great but painfully under-seen horror-western, and her work as a staff writer on Mike Flanagan's Midnight Mass, although imperfect, is still inspired. Here, her writing leans towards the latter.

Early on, when Lennon goes on her first deep trek into the forest, she listens to a podcast about missing persons and national parks, which instantly feels leading and unnecessary — the cavernous, unforgiving silence reads much more frightening than macabre facts through a pair of headphones. These expository moments prove redundant when coupled with the confident imagery used, and while Sutherland anxiously wants to help us understand the mysteries of this forest, her writing and directorial decisions are strong enough that any hand-holding feels patronizing.

She overuses canted angles, but her ability to create an unsettled mood is vividly on display throughout. A searing slow burn, the film doesn't rely on cheap jump scares or audience manipulation. Instead, it's intent on building a very specific mood and atmosphere through the lead character, with the terror coming from Lennon's memories and trauma, her unsettled inner forest reflecting our own demons. Much like Lennon, we project these monsters onto the forest because, like the deep recesses of our subconscious, it is unknown, dark and isolating — a blank canvas for fear. 

The film's extended second act features a surreal journey through the past and the mind. Existential horror at its most impressionistic, Lovely, Dark, and Deep adopts some truly disturbing visuals, which happen to also be where some of the film's most glaring problems arise. 

Rather than emphasizing the psychological and emotional toll that trauma and isolation can enact — the film's strongest and most original aspect — Sutherland relies on the forest's mystical elements. It's a trope as well-worn as a pair of old hiking boots: is the mind playing tricks on me or is it the spirits of the forest? This beat grows thin quickly, particularly when the effects on Lennon are depicted with little precedence. 

As the story unfolds, there isn't a gradual degradation of the psyche, but rather a harsh left turn that seems to split the film in two. By the time the should-be-harrowing finale arrives, much of the tension that's been building is washed away by dialogue that reveals too much, nullifying the film's hard-won ambiguity and mystique. 

People go into the forest to explore, confront fears, find themselves and heal the wounds that fester in more unnatural settings. The forest in Lovely, Dark, and Deep acts as a portal to the past, tunnelling into the deepest recesses of our protagonist's pain where, even in the golden autumnal hue, darkness manifests. The film doesn't just collide with reality; it dismantles it, sending the most frightening message of all: the real danger is in our mind and it's up to us, disoriented and alone, to escape it.

While audiences will inevitably be divided by the film's languid pace, unrealized ambiguity and bottleneck feel, fans of horror that requires patience and empathy will undoubtedly enjoy the sombre mysteries of Lovely, Dark, and Deep — a film well worth getting lost in.
(XYZ Films)

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