OUT OF DARKNESS is set 45,000 years ago, and uses a constructed language based on Basque, but it deals with some disturbingly contemporary and immediately recognizable issues. For a time and characters so remote from our experience, it is remarkable for how the story of a small band of hunter/gatherers resonates with all too identifiable types and emotions and they struggle for survival in a hostile new environment.
The characters are six refugees who have crossed the water to a new land in search of food and shelter. The laconic leader, Adem (Chuku Modu), brooks no arguments from his tribe about his choices to lead them to the western land of childhood myths, not even from Odal (Arno Lüning), the wise man he’s brought along as much for his foraging skills as for the wisdom that comes with his advanced years. He is accompanied by his younger brother, Geirr (Kit Young), a contemplative man much taken with Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green) the stray they have adopted, and much attached to his nephew, Adem’s son, Haron (Luna Mwezi in intriguing cross-gender casting), just coming into manhood as his step-mother, Ave (Iola Evans) is about to give birth to a child she hopes is a boy. Girls, she tells Beyah must earn their place, boys have it automatically.
The dynamics are set forth in the opening scene as they all huddle together around a campfire, swathed in scraps of fur and despair, where Adem insists that the story Heron has asked to hear be one of violence, full of men dominating their environment and each other. In the looming night, they hear strange sounds that might be unfamiliar animals, or might be, as Odal opines, demons who demand an offering. Fear drives them, and how each reacts becomes the driving force of the narrative.
Director and co-writer Andrew Cumming spares nothing in hammering home how precarious the lives of these humans are. There is no glamor here, no fur bikinis or sinewy muscles in loin cloths. They are on the brink of starvation, none of them feels entirely safe in this environment, nor, except for Adem and Heron, secure within the group. When Beyah experiences her first menses, the dynamics shift again, as Adem tells her strays serve only his needs, despite his brother’s attraction to the girl. As if the status of women needs further explication, Ave obliges by repeating that what is in store for Beyah now that she is fertile is good, but the repetition is one of resignation rather than joy.
Each individual is sharply drawn, with the stirrings of what will become civilization on display. It’s not a heartening story, but one that is fascinating, and thanks to intimate direction by Cumming, becomes a compelling, and fully recognizable, human drama. Not to mention an effectively unsettling horror film. These are visceral performances in a story that places us in the midst of the hostile unknown, allowing us to experience the dread of what is just beyond the light of the campfire. A story where Beyah munching with a defiant glare on some food that has cost them dearly is a testament to the self-preservation instinct at its most primal, and its most disquieting. Like so many of the images in this film, it is one that lodges in the mind as something that can’t be unseen for its import, for the way it gets to something primal lurking in all of us, and from which none of us has quite evolved.
When Heron ventures beyond the light and is snatched away, the story shifts to one of tracking something that might also be tracking the trackers. The absolute unknown becomes another character, and one that provokes a fear as primal as that ci-mentioned self-preservation instinct. Death is all too real, and all-too nearby, with one wrong decision, one false step, and one misunderstanding dealing a mortal blow from which there is no recovery.
OUT OF DARKNESS is a haunting tale made all the more powerful by the way it uses sound, light, and dark as aural and visual cues. A forest outlined in spectral light that becomes only slightly less daunting that abyss of absolute darkness, the desperation of trying to light a fire as a putative monster vocalizes in the distance, the eerie soundtrack that mimics the sounds of the natural world, erasing the boundary between the real and the imagined. This is a terrific and terrifying thriller that wracks the nerves and stops the breath. It is a mystery as dark as human nature reaching for the light, literal and metaphorical.