In 2011, Lucky McKee unleashed The Woman on the world. That film was a sequel to the 2009 film Offspring and now, eight years later, the saga of The Woman continues (concludes?) with Darlin’. The Woman was a brutal, uncomfortable piece of cinema that offered a unique look at gender dynamics and civilization. Darlin’, though well-directed by franchise star Pollyanna McIntosh, suffers from an underdeveloped script with odd tonal inconsistencies and some heavy-handed messaging that makes this sequel somewhat of a disappointment. The passion is there, but something got lost in the execution.
Found at a Catholic hospital filthy and ferocious, feral teenager Darlin’ (Lauryn Canny) is whisked off to a care home run by The Bishop (Bryan Batt, Scream: The Series) and his obedient nuns (one of whom is played by The Descent‘s Nora-Jane Noone) where she is to be tamed into a “good girl.” However, Darlin’ holds a secret darker than the “sins” she is threatened with, and she is not traveling alone. The Woman (Pollyanna McIntosh, The Woman) who raised her is ever present and is determined to come for her no matter who tries to step in her way.
If you’ve never seen The Woman, never fear. Darlin’ operates as a standalone film, though you’ll undoubtedly get more of a payoff if you’ve seen The Woman and/or Offspring. Darlin’ opts to shift the focus from The Woman to its titular character (whom you may remember rode off into the sunset with The Woman at the end of the previous film), but still doesn’t seem fully compelled to keep her in the limelight. Screen time is split fairly evenly between Darlin’s adventures in Christianland and The Woman’s journey to find her. This wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t feel like the two were in wildly different films, but it does. The Woman is in some kind of bizarre black comedy slasher film whereas Darlin’ is in a film that plays somewhat like a remake of The Woman with the religious aspects amped up to 11. It is this film that takes itself seriously, which isn’t surprising when it comes to the subject matter (i.e., sexual assault), but it just doesn’t mesh well with the kooky comedy that The Woman is in.
In attempting to tackle so many issues with such a large variety of tones, Darlin’ loses its focus. It also rushes through plot points at a rapid pace, rarely giving any of them time to resonate. This is especially true in Darlin’s taming process. The timeline is established via a character’s pregnancy so you know it’s taking place over the course of nine months, but Darlin’ is feral in one scene and then speaking full sentences in the next. It’s all rather abrupt and narratively unsatisfying.
Where Darlin’ does excel is in McIntosh’s direction. For a debut feature, she has a remarkably confident hand. Her passion for this world and (some of) its characters shine through every frame. It’s also refreshing to see a woman behind the camera in a film that is so female-centric. McIntosh proves equally adept at filming the softer moments just as well as she does the violent ones. It is a solid directorial debut and I’m looking forward to what she has in store for us next.
As mentioned above, The Woman is a brutal film, and Darlin’ doesn’t skimp on the gore, either. Cannibalism plays a fairly large role in the proceedings, but there are plenty of stabbings to go around as well. It’s all appropriately icky, but it does somewhat lack the in-your-face grotesquerie that The Woman possessed. In that film, you felt the violence. In Darlin’, the violence doesn’t feel quite as visceral, which is saying something for a film that features a sequence in which The Woman cuts the stomach off of a fresh corpse before eating it.
Performances run the gamut from nuanced and sincere to flat-out caricatures. Canny makes a strong impression as Darlin’, making the transition from feral to civilized seem natural even when the editing betrays her. Similarly, McIntosh feels right at home as The Woman surprising no one who has seen her perfectly embody this role before. Noone and Cooper Andrews (as a nurse who befriends Darlin’) also do well in their smaller roles. When it comes to the Bishop, however, all nuance is lost. He might as well be twirling a Snidely Whiplash mustache, both because of the way he is written and because that’s how big Batt plays him. It’s certainly a choice. Similarly, there is a convent of homeless women that take The Woman in that feel like they’re in an entirely different film. Just when you think they are meant to serve some kind of narrative importance they abruptly leave the picture, making you wonder why they were even introduced in the first place.
Darlin’ is clearly a passion project for McIntosh, and that passion is evident on screen. It’s just not enough to make Darlin’ wholly successful. If you are a fan of The Woman and want to see the story continued, then definitely give it a watch. Otherwise, there’s just not much here to recommend.
Darlin’ had its world premiere at the SXSW film festival on March 9, 2019, and is being repped by MPI and Dark Sky Films.