Imagery As Madness in Westlake’s Transformation in Sam Raimi’s ‘Darkman’
Darkman is a 1990 action fantasy film about a brilliant scientist left for dead who returns to exact revenge on the people who burned him alive.
Talk about a movie well ahead of its time, this is it. From its inspired visuals to its comic book sensibility, Darkman is a unique and highly-entertaining movie that went where Tim Burton‘s Batman couldn’t and a full decade before it became popular, a superhero film with real edge. It’s loud, bombastic and over-the-top, which is kinda where you want a film like this to be, making it truly a standout, simply because there is really nothing quite like it. Let’s do this.
Scientist Payton Westlake (Liam Neeson), in his waterfront laboratory, develops an artificial skin that, much to his frustration, degrades after 99 minutes in light but somehow sustains in darkness, it’s properties effected by photosynthesis. Meanwhile, his longtime attorney girlfriend Julie Hastings (Francis McDormand) has come upon some very incriminating documents that prove land developer Louis Strack (Colin Friels) is bribing the zoning commission, though he appears to have good reason to do so.
Problem is, mobster Robert Durant (Larry Drake) wants the papers and comes to the lab to find them, though Westlake knows nothing about it. Durant and his thugs kill Westlake’s assistant, torture Westlake with acids, disfiguring him, then burn the place, causing an explosion that hurls the scientist through the roof and into the water. Presumed dead, he ends up unidentified at a local hospital where he receives experimental treatments that ends us heightening his strength and leaving him numb to pain. This allows him to escape and then gather his salvageable equipment in order to create a new identities using his synthetic skin. Now he will seek revenge on those who tried to destroy him.
Directed by Sam Raimi, from his own story, one created when he couldn’t get the rights to other superhero franchises The Shadow or Batman, Darkman is wildly off-beat, a frenetic, heavily-stylized action movie that kinda serves like an audition tape for Raimi’s take on Spider-Man a decade later. As expected from Raimi, it’s visually imaginative and features a number of his trademarks, but the real draw here is Neeson, who delivers a unique take on the genre character. He’s arguably the best translated character from comic book to movie ever even though that’s not even where he started. Neeson has such great physical and vocal presence, he is at once both undeniably engaging and always compelling. He is Darkman.
Raimi puts together a pretty kinetic movie experience loaded with great stunts and big action, while also developing the Darkman persona. Yes, it’s all loopy and aggressively off the charts in terms of overacting and aesthetics, but that’s what it’s trying to do, and as such, really feels like pages of a comic book come to life. An extended scene with a couple of helicopters and a man on a wire is pretty thrilling, and surely feels like preamble to Spidey swinging about skyscrapers.
I want to talk about one great moment though, a bit after the midway point. After Westlake rebuilds his lab in a secret location, he uses his experiments to create a mask of his former self but also plots revenge, studying Durant and his men, learning their routines and even vocal patterns. He finds he can mimic other people and uses this to infiltrate the mobster’s clan. Meanwhile, he reconnects with Julie and explains that he has been in a coma for a time and can only be outside for short times as he is still in physical therapy, which is a way to keep him safely under the 99-minute clock. It’s all confusing for her, but she is happy to have him back in her life,, even for limited times. Still, she has questions. One day, he arranges to meet her at a local fair and rejoices in being with her again. Neeson is terrific here. Watch how he lets this build, while still clearly suppressing a bubbling rage that’s just under Westlake’s skin. He is longing for normality again, to have a pleasant day with Julie, to enjoy a simple thing like an afternoon at a carnival, and with limited time, tries to force the good time with happiness.
Wanting to maximize time spent with her, he spontaneously tries to win her a stuffed animal at the Milk Bottle game. As he plays, she pressures him to tell more about where he goes and why. When he successfully knocks the surely-rigged bottles over, the barker refuses to pay up, claiming Payton was over the line when he tossed the ball. Westlake, his emotional and sensory feedback blunted by the treatment which cut the nerves that signal pain, becomes enraged and in a cacophonous moment of madness, crushes the barker’s fingers and tosses him through the tent wall. Naturally, Julie screams, but it only gets worse as Westlake’s face begins to bubble as the artificial skin deteriorates. Panicked, he runs off, abandoning Julie as she gives chase as he disappeared into the crowd.
What I like best about this this moment is how authentically Raimi captures a comic book look, as if pages from a graphic novel were leaping right off the screen. Notice the angular camera shots and the cutaways to carnival imagery, establishing the off-kilter tone. You can almost see the frames dividing the comic book panels. Characters speak in short expressive sentences while Raimi steadily layers in more and more of the carnival sounds and calamity, metaphorically representing the chaos swirling about in his mind. Raimi uses quick, jarring images to symbolize the breakdown. It starts with this swift zoom and lighting changing as Westlake begins to fume, externalizing an internal feeling.
This transitions to some fleeting shots of abstract carnival images, such as this clown, a creepy demon-esque face that sweeps across the screen:
And this very cool sequence of electric bolts of lightning penetrating the backdrop of the barker’s tent:
Notice the faces already jeering and screaming, re-enforcing the coming expressions of grotesqueness and condemnation. I particularly like the moment when he finally ‘loses’ it, giving in to the violence within as the barker pokes his chest. Look at the transitions here as the world around Westlake becomes split by fire. In a very cool shot, we zoom into his right eye as a ring of flames ignites inside his head signaling his internal metamorphosis before zooming out his left eye. It’s quick and easy to miss, but makes for a very clever visual.
Meanwhile, triggered by the barker’s casual throwaway line of ‘weirdo’, Westlake becomes overwhelmed by feelings of isolation, believing himself a freak, something echoed as the scene ends, a disembodied voice, that of another carnival barker, calling attention to the freakshow, seemingly describing Westlake. The theme now becomes obvious, the true struggle of what being Darkman feels like to Westlake, and the last hurdle he needs to overcome in becoming the hero the story needs him to be.
Darkman is smart action adventure, seen by many as a cult favorite, and deservedly so. It makes for a great precursor to the modern superhero film, one that more embraces the influences of the comic book itself than most do. While it will feel rightly foreign to those who take to current Marvel and DC films, nonetheless, this is a great addition to the genre. Darkman. Watch it now.