Written & Directed by: Shaun Wilson
Film Review by: #ChrisBuick
Christmas Eve. Eight days after the horrific events of World War III. Alone and desperate to survive, Kate (Culligan) traverses the now desolate dystopian landscape with nothing but a gas mask and a radio in her hands, which she uses to communicate with some unknown gentleman on the other end who claims to be able to lead her to salvation.
To say that Black Garden is a slow burn would be quite the understatement. In fact, the pace at which this film moves through its narrative is practically glacial. Which might have been fine if it meant that ultimately the film was laying the foundations for something spectacular or inspired, but sadly, it never really comes close to that.
The film starts interestingly enough. In the opening fifteen minutes or so, we cut between other survivors isolating themselves from the unknown danger outside their homes and havens, before ultimately each one is coaxed from their sanctuary by a mysterious radio voice only to then be lead to their demise. Here, it seems like Wilson is building a rich and intriguing mystery for us to stew over as he leads us through his bleak, dark world.
But from that point on where we begin to follow Kate exclusively, the film seems to then be forever trapped in a vicious cycle of rinsing and repeating the same story beats over and over again. Save for a somewhat tedious scene where Kate’s only other human contact Henry (played by Wilson himself) is revealed unsurprisingly to not be what he seems, and culminates in a sexual assault which seems to serve no other purpose other than to inject some kind of drama at any cost, the majority of the film mainly limits us to watching Kate shamble through deserted landscape after deserted landscape, desperately clutching her radio before searching a nearby building for food, without ever facing any real sustained sense of threat or danger other than starvation.
It’s never nice to say but the unfortunate reality is, Black Garden is quite boring. It’s a bit like watching someone play a video-game RPG for the first time on easy mode and had this film been delivered in a tighter, more focused short form effort, it perhaps might have worked a whole lot better than it does. There are brief mentions of a wall (nod to Trump?) and radiation but not much else and while a certain sense of mystery is always welcome and heavy exposition is by no means necessarily the way to go either, you’ve got to give your audience something to go on, especially if you want them to care about the people you’re asking them to root for.
But there are positives here. The haunting monochrome aesthetic and pounding score work fantastically in setting the tone right from the off, we understand immediately how harsh this world is going to be, it’s just a shame that it’s dramatic potential is never truly explored. And while Culligan isn’t given that much to do overall, she demonstrates and commits fully to what range she is able to show.
Black Garden is a film that sacrifices a lot of its substance for style and while its certain arthouse aesthetic and ambition can certainly be appreciated, it simply doesn’t have the legs or the story to justify a full feature.