The thrall of magic stems from the unknowable power it possesses. What could we gain if we knew the inner workings of the universe beyond science? What could we lose if others possessed that knowledge and we didn’t? That thrall has been wielded for wonders and terrors as long as humanity has been telling stories. It’s what compels people to dress up in capes, carry wands, and wait giddily in line for hours for any Harry Potter release. That’s the wonder. But it’s also what has compelled humans to hunt each other down throughout history, torturing and burning innocents at the stake in a frenzied panic. That’s the terror. Few films have captured both qualities with the succinct clarity of A Dark Song, the rousing directorial debut from Irish filmmaker Liam Gavin.
Structured around a grueling ritual, A Dark Song follows two strangers as they spend six months locked up alone in a remote house, testing the limits of their physical and mental breaking points to conjure a guardian angel who will grant them each an impossible wish. Catherine Walker stars as Sophia, a woman drowning in her grief over the death of her young son. In over her head, but willing to do whatever it takes to see him once again, Sophia recruits Joseph Solomon (Sightseers‘ Steve Oram), an experienced practitioner of the dark arts, and an aggressive man who wields his superior knowledge with contempt.
Gavin, who also penned the script, makes two very important things clear from the beginning: The magic at work is brutal and extraordinarily dangerous — it’s not quite dark magic, but it’s the kind of spell that could cost you your soul if you do it wrong. And neither of them can be trusted. The director keeps the motivations and morality of his characters always just out of grasp. Sophia is icy with an inexplicable darkness brewing beneath her grief. She’s also almost instantly proved a liar. Soloman is more straightforward, but a bit of a bastard and his track record is spotty at best. Sophia may be paying Solomon an ungodly sum, but he’s the one in control and he never for a second lets Sophia, or the audience, forget it. Once the conjuring begins, that control takes on new shades of darkness, and Gavin ratchets up the tension with a masterful hand, slowly revealing the intricate, specific, and hellish demands of the ritual.
This is magic as you’ve rarely seen it on screen. It’s study. It’s labor. It’s suffering. Every single minuscule element of the ritual, from the chalky graphics into the floor to the very intentions of those conducting it, must be precise. Everything must be accounted for. The cost of any mistake, even the most minuscule, is immeasurable and the deeper they go, the farther they drift from reality. In short, it’s very very hard. Gavin outlines the laws of a magic from which great reward can only spring from great sacrifice, some of which will have you squirming and gagging in your seat, coiling knots of tension in your stomach as you wonder how far this woman is willing to go and tightening them even further when you realize it’s far too late to turn back now.