The Dark Divide

Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

The Dark Divide
dir-scr Tom Putnam
prd Aaron Boyd, Ryan James Frost, Tom Putnam, Jory Weitz, David Cross
with David Cross, Debra Messing, David Koechner, Cameron Esposito, Gary Farmer, Kimberly Guerrero, Patterson Hood, Peyton Dilweg, Dyami Thomas, Olivia Ritchie, Brian Adrian Koch, Ayanna Berkshire
release US 18.Sep.20
20/US 1h47

messing koechner esposito

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The Dark Divide
Based on a true story from 1995, this gently loping adventure has a quirky comical tone that's underscored by deeper emotions. Shot in the actual locations, the film is also packed with the kinds of details that only come from a carefully observed firsthand account. So even if the story feels meandering, documentary filmmaker Tom Putnam has a terrific eye for capturing extraordinary situations in grounded, resonant ways.
In the vast, unprotected Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southern Washington, known locally as the Dark Divide, lepidopterist Robert Pyle (Cross) is on an ambitious month-long hike searching for new butterfly species. His wife Thea (Messing) has been going through cancer treatment, which leaves him feeling rudderless. Then in the dense woodland, his backpacking inexperience immediately becomes apparent, yet he still ignores most warnings. As he persistently wanders through the wilderness, he encounters various hikers, lumberjacks and wildlife. He also begins to see signs that bigfoot might be watching his progress along the demanding trail.
The film is sharply well-shot by Sean Bagley and smoothly assembled to tell the story in an internal style that mixes natural grandeur with emotive flashbacks, as well as some slapstick moments of ineptness in the wild, sometimes with added life-threatening dangers. The most menacing creatures he encounters are the tetchy men on a deforestation crew. But it's his own ineptness that continually puts him into seriously harrowing situations, including getting lost in an underground cave wearing just his boots and underpants.

Cross is terrific as always in what is essentially a one-man show, bringing a likeable haplessness to this intrepid hiker, often in a state of undress that makes him even more vulnerable. His innate humour and curiosity drive the film forward, allowing the actor and the filmmakers to layer in character traits that are both complex and sometimes infuriating. His interaction with people along the way has the offbeat crackle of real life. And his visceral yearning to survive is downright inspiring.

This is a story about a man who has always defined himself by the people around him, so now this crazy experience offers him a chance to come to terms with who he is. While tracing Pyle's odyssey, the script stirs in some bigger conservational issues without being too pushy about them. And there's also a stunning range of landscapes, including deep gorges, icy peaks and lava flows. And while the film feels rather touchy-feely, the smaller magical moments along the way meaningfully linger.

cert pg themes, language, violence 14.Sep.20

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