After enduring the physical and psychological torment inflicted upon her unnamed character in Lucky McKee’s 2011 film The Woman, it makes sense that Pollyanna McIntosh would want to lighten things up a bit. And it’s her prerogative to do so in Darlin’, a direct sequel to The Woman that marks McIntosh’s debut both as a screenwriter and as a director. Taking a harrowing Jack Ketchum adaptation and injecting humor into it is a challenge, one that McIntosh isn’t quite equipped to handle in this wildly uneven film. But while the tone is all over the place, McIntosh’s underlying intent—to humanize seemingly barbarous characters, imbuing them with all the dignity and personal autonomy that objective implies—is successful. It’s also unambiguously feminist, placing Darlin’ in a dialogue with its more opaque predecessor that’s arguably more interesting than the film itself.
McIntosh’s commentary on the savage side of femininity is present from the opening frames of the movie, where a trail of blood in the snow is juxtaposed with the bright red lipstick being applied by the receptionist in a Catholic hospital. The “Catholic” bit turns out to be important, as after being hit by an ambulance and admitted to the hospital’s emergency room, a feral girl known only as Darlin’ (Lauryn Canny) becomes the unwitting pawn of a bishop (Bryan Batt) who wants to use her as an example of the civilizing power of the church—and keep money flowing in from Rome in the process. Washed, combed, and dressed in a khaki jumper and blue button-down shirt, Darlin’ is sent to all-girls reform school St. Philomena’s. There, she adapts to “civilized” life with a minimum of violence thanks to the efforts of Sister Jennifer (Nora-Jane Noone), an ex-addict and former student at the school. Darlin’ even begins to believe in God after a while. All the while, the wild woman who raised her, “the Woman” of the previous film (McIntosh), is murdering her way across the countryside in search of her adoptive daughter.
Darlin’ is crammed full of on-the-nose commentary on religion, misogyny, homophobia, sexual abuse, and women’s agency (or lack thereof) over their own bodies, all politically charged subjects that mix with the film’s attempts at comedy like oil and water. A few of the jokes land, like the scene where Sister Jennifer asks Darlin’ to recite a Bible passage about sacrifice and suffering, then asks her if she understands what she just read. She vigorously shakes her head no. But most of humor crashes and burns as soon as it rubs up against the film’s more serious themes—literally in one instance, when McIntosh resolves an otherwise unresolvable scene of The Woman taking her first car ride with a dramatic traffic accident. Some of it is so bizarrely misjudged that it borders on the surreal, as when The Woman stabs a clown she inexplicably meets wandering down a hospital hallway.
And it’s unfortunate, because McIntosh does show a talent for both small moments of poetic poignancy as well as for composition. Rendered in a soft, powdery palette dominated by ivory, pink, baby blue, and yellow, much of Darlin’ has a visual delicacy that, in steadier and more experienced hands, could serve as an affecting counterpoint to the blunt social messaging. As it is, it’s another jarring mismatch in a film full of them. The core issue seems to be indecision over whether this is all supposed to be camp or not: On the one hand, the hammy overacting of the supporting cast—the all-female gang of itinerants who take in The Woman are particularly silly in this regard—points towards an ironic distance from the material. On the other, Canny’s committed ferocity in the role of Darlin’ does not seem to have been conceived or performed in jest. It’s the kind of confusion that transforms righteous fury into preposterous silliness—not the sort of creative alchemy any artist hopes for.