Fantastic Fest 2023: STRANGE DARLING: Don’t Read This Review [Spoiler Free]

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

If you’re into serial killer cinema, you’re going to want to check out JT Mollner’s Strange Darling. And that is all you honestly want to know about the film going into it. Strange Darling is a textbook example of a film you should view as unsullied as possible. In fact, the lone plot summary provided to Fantastic Fest audiences is “One day in the twisted love life of a serial killer”. I pity whoever needs to one day cut a trailer for this gem and sell the movie to wide audiences without giving away too much. So, with all that said, you may not even want to read this review. It’s a nasty and enjoyable and gorgeously made film that you’ll want to see for yourself. I’m going to review it, though, and I’m going to stay pretty militantly spoiler free.

Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League shared that he personally programmed this title for this year’s fest; something he rarely does anymore these days. But one can see how League felt compelled to bring this one into the Fantastic Fest fold. The writer/director here is a guy named JT Mollner, who’s done some shorts and a feature called Outlaws & Angels in 2016. I can’t say I’d heard of Outlaws & Angels before, but it looks like a bit of a DTV western that was apparently shot on film (like Strange Darling was) and frankly I’m going to want to seek that movie out after seeing his latest. Lord knows I love a good DTV film, and a good western. 

Strange Darling feels like the kind of movie that is a showcase for talent on the rise. Mollner very much announces his arrival with confidence here, and creates a bit of a calling card for his stars Willa Fitzgerald and Kyle Gallner. I personally was not familiar with Fitzgerald, though she’s worked quite a bit and I had apparently seen her in Reacher. This is a full on star making bravura performance as “The Lady”; the kind of performance you look back on 20 years later and say, “this is where Willa Fitzgerald really broke out”. Kyle Gallner literally has screen credits going back over 20 years but has been on the rise and popping onto peoples’ radars quite a bit in recent years with Scream and Smile. This marks a confident star turn for Gallner as well. Worthy of note: Not only was Strange Darling shot on 35mm Kodak film, but it was also shot by first time cinematographer and longtime star of the silver screen, Mr. Giovanni Ribisi! Mollner and Ribisi shoot the hell out of the film and it looks marvelous. Featuring original music from Z Berg, the film sounds as good as it looks as well. 

I think it’s very safe to say that Strange Darling fits squarely into the serial killer genre and it also reveals little to say that it is somewhat of a “cat & mouse” style film, a two-hander between hunter and hunted. It’s the kind of film that is so well written and so confidently realized that it makes you feel like there will never be an end to the potential riffs and new ground a smart filmmaker can bring to a well-trodden genre. Mollner tells us early on that this tale will be told in 6 chapters, and while I love that kind of thing, it often comes off as a Tarantino homage more than a true tool for a writer to tell a great story. But Mollner doesn’t really seem to be aping or evoking Tarantino at all, and instead puts his own spin on exactly what information he reveals to his audience at exactly what time. And it’s frankly pretty delicious.

Strange Darling is a good time at the movies. It’s dark and disturbing and deals honestly with serial killing. It’s also playful and alternately keeps you laughing and guessing and on the edge of your seat. There’s undeniable talent assembled behind and before the camera, putting you in good hands for the ride it’ll take you on. You’ll want to go into Strangle Darling knowing as little as you can, but you’ll most definitely want to go into Strange Darling

And I’m Out. 

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