I have been wanting to write about this movie since it was released back in November of 2020, but it’s a tough one to suss out. This is a movie that’s all about mood, and a lot of backstory and explanation gets sacrificed to that, but overall I think this works in its favor. It’s not a perfect film, but it is perfectly intentional, and I get the sense that not one sentence or shot is wasted here; that every single thing is weighted with meaning. Now that I’ve chewed it over for a year – which is a lot of chewing – I feel like I can finally summarize my thoughts. In the past when I tried, I found myself over-analyzing every scene and utterance, because the film does lend itself to this, but at this point I think I’ve finally synthesized everything enough to give more cohesive and conclusive thoughts without getting too bogged down in details.
SPOILERS BELOW! Don’t read if you don’t want to know.
Reason for Filming: It’s a movie, that’s why. (In other words, this is not found footage)
What’s the Horror: Family breakdowns, and also demons
Does the Dog Die? No dogs, but many sheep. So many, many sheep.
Gore Factor: Scale of one to ten? I’d give it a four. There’s not much, but there’s some. Including the aforementioned sheep.
Character Quality: Excellent, albeit completely reserved to the point of being withdrawn. Which is the point, so it works. The acting is stellar.
Re-Watch Scale: Oh man. This is such a good film, but it’s too bleak to be re-watched often. I enjoy a lot of horror movies and find them to be so much fun. This movie is NOT fun. It’s one of the bleakest I’ve ever seen. There’s not one moment of levity in the whole thing. It’s brilliantly and intentionally done, but this is one rough watch. In fact, although I am rarely actually scared by a horror movie anymore, the sense of despair is so dense here that the horror elements pack a pretty terrifying punch, and this one really did scare me a little. So that’s something.
SPOILERS AHEAD – LAST WARNING
The Dark and the Wicked is about just that. It’s about the role darkness and wickedness plays in all of our lives – how we can be consumed by our own darkness and give in to it to the extent our wickedness ekes out of us and latches on to the ones we love. When we descend into darkness, it turns out we don’t necessarily go down alone. We may be taking others with us without intending to do so. And how much of that is our fault?
There’s a home care nurse in this story who tells one of the main characters that she believes in God, and therefore she must believe in the Devil, too. And she believes the Devil, and the evil he generates, can come for anyone, at any time, at random. Without meaning or warning. But love – love can protect a soul from the Devil’s darkness. The flaw in her explanation, however, is that she makes love sound so simple. If you’re family, you love each other. And if you love each other, that love is always pure, and reciprocated, and is never selfish, or flat-out inadequate. But we all know love isn’t always pure and perfect and kind, and we don’t – or can’t – always access it to the capacity we need to when the times require. Sometimes we just don’t love others the way we should. Sometimes we fail; we just don’t always get love right. And the consequences of that here are tragic.
The film’s setting is somewhere in Texas, on a bleak sheep farm out in the middle of honest-to-God nowhere. Interestingly, the director grew up on this very farm, so I’m going to hope the way he portrays this farm in his film isn’t the way he experienced it growing up because damn – it’s bleak as fuck in every single shot. Wide angles stretching out the brown, flat, winter nothingness. Miles of brown grass and grey skies and lots of wind, and wolves that howl at night, and shadows. Dark, heavy silhouettes dominate as a motif in the movie, as we repeatedly see characters in full shadow, lit only from behind, everything but the shape of the body unknowable. People as empty shells, or dense as heavy voids.
But I’m already getting bogged down in details. The premise is this – Mama and Papa run the family farm alone, their two grown children having left long ago. But Papa is dying – has been for some time, it seems – and it’s getting to the point that Mama can no longer cope on her own. Enter Michael and Louise, their two children, who arrive on the farm on the same day after being called there by the home care nurse who tends to Papa during the day. She thought having family around him would help. She’s – not right about that.
In fact, according to Mama, the opposite is true: she repeatedly says the kids should not have come, which overall isn’t an unusual thing for someone to say after tending to a dying partner for some time. There’s a tendency to get used to going it alone, and even preferring it that way, and not wanting to burden other people, which is unavoidable since you and you alone know how burdensome the situation is. The guilt just makes things harder. But. That does not seem to be the motivation of Mama here. She never looks her children in the eye, and keeps her back to them as much as possible. She says other things that are more ominous and menacing. “You shouldn’t be here,” she says repeatedly, which – is a different thing to say, entirely.
It’s easy enough though, to write this off as stress and grief and strain, which is what Michael and Louise do. We see these two try to make small talk with each other, and it’s painful. It’s clear they have nothing to say, that they’ve been estranged, and that Louise is perhaps a bit more estranged from her parents than her brother. “When’s the last time you called them?” Michael asks. “She called me on my birthday,” Louise responds, which – ouch. I know that one. Louise never calls.
We don’t know why this is; the estrangement between everyone involved is never explained. There’s no backstory, no reason for their distance, either emotional or physical. Were they ever close to each other, or to their parents? It’s never clear. There’s no family history, other than little hints here and there – Michael says one time that his father was a good man, and we hear him tell his wife that without his mother he’s lost. Louise tells her father she loves him and can’t live without him, but not until he’s literally breathing his last breath. There are images occasionally that hint at past disappointments – Mama has an unfinished wedding dress in her sewing room with the name “Louise” pinned to it, for example – but that’s about it. I’m still unclear as to whether or not more history would have enhanced the story. I’m not sure it would, but more importantly I think it works quite well without it, so I definitely can’t call it a flaw. We are in it as deep as they are, in the moment, with no way out – and perhaps too many happy family memories would have provided points of exit or salvation the filmmaker didn’t want to provide. So it leaves me wondering, but it works.
And there’s more at work here than family isolation, impending death, and familial discomfort. Because Mama has been hearing things. And whispering to someone who isn’t there. And there are wolves that howl at night. And chairs that scrape across the floor on their own. And apparently, there’s a literal demon in the opening scene that I have never, ever seen, so I was surprised to find a screen shot of it:
I re-watched this scene after seeing this image, and nope. Still didn’t catch it. So this shit goes by fast, y’all. It did enlighten me to the idea that the director wants us to know from the opening moments that there’s a literal devil here, which I was willing to believe without ever seeing this moment, because quicker than you can say “Mama’s had a bad, bad day” she intentionally chops off all her fingers while cutting carrots over the sink and then hangs herself in the garage, which is where the siblings find her the next morning. They’ve only been there 24 hours. Shouldn’t have come, indeed.
This sends Michael and Louise into a spiral of silent, isolating grief. In this moment of great pain, they aren’t capable of providing much solace to each other. Louise finds some comfort with a long-time family friend and ranch hand named Charlie, with whom she seems to have a father-daughter type of friendship. It’s been suggested there’s something sexual here, which is possible, but I don’t really sense that myself – I see Charlie as a replacement for the affection Louise should be able to share with her father, but can’t for whatever reason. Her level of comfort with him – she breaks down and cries while hugging him, which we never see her do with her brother – implies they have been this way for a long, long time, probably since Louise was a child, which indicates to me that there’s always been distance between Mama, Papa, and the children. For Michael’s part, his love and loyalty lies with his wife and children, to whom he constantly calls and unburdens himself over the course of the week he is there, expressing his intense desire to leave all of this behind and just get back home to the family he loves and clearly adores – indeed, he seems to cling tightly to his own family as a form of escape or relief from the desolation his childhood home has come to represent. All of the love that should be in that house, it seems, is projecting itself outward and elsewhere, and none of that is doing Papa any favors, just like it couldn’t save Mama.
And let’s talk about Papa for a second. He lies in bed with a tube in his nose, unconscious, and he coughs on occasion. That’s about it. There’s one scary moment where Louise hallucinates his coming into the bathroom while she showers, with his eyes whited over and his head convulsing, but in a flash he is gone. We never see anyone speak to him, touch him tenderly, or otherwise even acknowledge his presence, and yet, it is his impending death that looms over all of them; his death, and – something else. There is something off about the setup here, the way Papa is, as a figure of mortality, ever-present, but as a person, completely unknown and unacknowledged. It works a subtle, uncomfortable spell on the audience and gets under our skin. Who is this man? Who loved him, and why? What did he do with his life, and what influence did he have on his children? Even for the brief time in which Mama was alive, we never see her do anything more than tug on his covers and mutter at her children, and when Michael finds her diary, which she was writing in up until the night she died, it has almost no mention of Papa at all. It talks mostly about the Devil, who wants to steal her husband’s soul and sits on his chest at night, who laughs at her and tells her to die. “Devil, Devil, Devil,” are her last written words before she commits suicide. So more than anything, it’s the Devil that defines Papa – as its target, yes, but also, as the thing that gives the Devil its power, a power it uses to cut down anyone else it encounters as it watches vigil over Papa’s last breaths. In her diary, Mama says she tried to lock the Devil out, but it gained access anyway. But it could have been Papa who let him in just as easily, with or without intention.
Enter the nurse, who by the way, does an excellent job in this role. She’s a peaceful, simple, stabilizing character here, sitting in her corner knitting while watching over the old man, and offering up her own deeply-held religious sincerity. She is open, and honest, and not at all overbearing in her strong and steady belief in God and the power of love – she offers nothing but what she hopes can be comfort for everyone involved, and her eventual disintegration under the pressure of the family’s deep misery is heartbreaking in its subversion of what should be her pure and innocent belief in the power of God and prayer to heal all wounds. But she does provide the best explanation for what’s happening inside the home: Evil exists, and it comes for whoever it wants, and it does whatever it wants, in the end. She’s right about that part. But she is painfully, tragically wrong about the power of love to overcome that evil.
So far, I haven’t actually talked about that evil all that much, so let’s get into that. Mama’s presence is still seen and heard throughout the house, and in disturbingly creepy ways. Michael sees her in the fields at night, with an evil smile on her face and her nightgown blowing in the breeze. She levitates off the ground right in front of his eyes before his bedroom lights go out only for her to be right behind him when he flicks them on again. She approaches him again in the barn at night, her naked body decomposed, and tries to convince him to use his pocketknife to slash his own throat. Louise hears her voice when the phone rings, telling her again “I told you not to come.” It’s unsettling to see Mama, who seemed to be disturbed but also a fairly gentle, maternal character before her demise menacing her own children in this manner. It feels not just evil and scary, but also cruel, and not at all motivated by Mama herself – it feels like a manipulation from someone, or somewhere, else.
Enter the priest. I think he has a name, but I can’t recall it, and the cast list just calls him The Priest so I’m gonna follow suit. Up to this point I haven’t mentioned how deliberate and poetic much of the language is in the movie, because there’s so much going on visually and through the storyline, but it’s magnificent. And the priest has some of the. best. lines. He shows up in their driveway in the middle of some thundering rain, and forces an invitation inside. Michael and Louise are not pleased. It seems the family was never religious, and they feel Mama’s rantings about the devil may be this man’s doing. She’s never been to church much less visited with a priest, but it seems in her hour of need this man was there to “help,” as he says. The siblings think he’s the one who filled her head with ideas about devils and demons and souls, and quite possibly made her go mad. But the priest has a different perspective. Our mom thought the devil was here, Louise says to him, but she didn’t believe in such things. “What does it matter whether you believe?” the priest responds. “Do you think the wolf cares if you believe he’s a wolf? Not if he finds you alone in the woods.” The sheep can confirm this maxim.
“She needed someone. I think you both know that now, hmm?” the priest growls, his voice and cadence darkly demonic. He’s creepy as hell. But he’s not wrong. “She was alone. They both were. I didn’t do that.” Ouch. That one’s gotta hurt.
Now, before you begin to believe too completely that this priest is obvs the Devil himself, make note that a few scenes later, Louise will call him on the cell phone number he left on the card he gave her – and he will have no idea who she is. Or who her mother is. In fact, he’s never been to Texas, much less visited their sheep farm. He is in a hotel in Chicago, and he has no idea how Louise got his number. But there is a connection here, because the priest, or whoever he is, chastises Louise for the cruel joke she’s playing on him, calling him up, using his dead daughter’s name, and imitating her voice so precisely. Louise throws the phone away from her in shock, as if she’s just been burned, and – just exactly what the hell is happening here?
I’ve spent way too much time over-analyzing scenes like these, where reality gets blurred and tiny plot points arise that I know mean something but I’ve no idea what or how important it is to figure them out – such as when Louise wakes up after spending the night sleeping next to her father (which strikes me as weird, by the way) and her face is covered with red lipstick, or just why it is that it’s only Michael who ever sees visions of his mother, while Louise is the one who hallucinates her father having that seizure, and while I have theories about all of these, in the end it’s best to conclude, as the movie does, that this is just how evil is. It fucks with you because it can. And this weirdness with the priest, in particular, I think comes down to exactly that. In the absence of love, in the presence of evil – nothing and no one can be trusted.
The poor nurse has to find this out the hard way. I mean, the hard, hard way – as do those sheep – but I’m skipping over that part as I’m sure you can imagine that damage. They’re adorable animals and this is a horror movie, after all. But let’s just say those aren’t marshmallows they’re roasting in the fire photo up above. Anyway, the nurse has been present throughout the movie, but mostly in the background, watching over Papa and offering solace where she can. She’s the polar opposite of the creepy priest, who was loaded with agendas and guilt and blame and bad intentions; she’s fulfilling what appears to be a pretty Christian calling, in the traditional sense, caring for the sick and the elderly, and on the final day in the house she lights a prayer candle for healing and protection for the family. But we’re way past that – compare her teeny little flame to the raging sheep-fire and you get the idea. Because after the creepy priest shows up in the dead of night on the front lawn with dead eyes, Michael has had enough. In fact, by the time Louise rises the next morning, Michael is gone.
He’s heading back home, he tells her when she calls. It’s too late for Papa. Get out of there and save yourself, he says. His wife and his daughters are all he cares about in this world, and he’s getting back to what matters, to what he can actually affect and protect in this world. Louise is, understandably, distraught. “I can’t believe you left me alone,” she wails inconsolably, and her fear, her pain, her anguish, is palpable. I mean, it is a dick move, Michael. But it isn’t going to work out the way he wants anyway. He’ll go home, walk through his front door, and find his wife and children dead at the breakfast table. Their throats all cut. It’s an eerily effective scene, with loud, plaintive country music on the stereo as Michael slow-motions it around his house, trying to make sense of the carnage. He can’t take it. He takes out that knife his mother tried to convince him to use the previous night, and slits his own throat wide open. And as the blood flows, we see the scene through his eyes – there’s no one home. No children with their heads slumped over their cereal. No wife with lifeless eyes. It was all a lie. And there is nothing Michael can do before he dies except realize too late his terrible, terrible mistake. He cannot, in fact, protect his family. He can’t simply go back to what he had before whatever darkness he encountered on the farm seeped into his life. He’s leaving everything he loves behind, in the most damaging, tragic way possible. Dang.
Back on the farm, Louise continues to grieve over her brother’s betrayal, and the chaos unfolding in the other room is having an odd effect on the nurse. We’re in the kitchen with Louise when we hear her scream. Louise runs into Papa’s room where we see her bloodied by her knitting needle, which she has plunged into her own stomach. It’s pretty horrifying. She continues to vacillate between religious fervor – whispering to Jesus that she hears him, she praises him, she loves him – and abject horror at the violence she’s inflicting on herself uncontrollably. There are moments where her face reveals her terror over what is happening, and the next that is wiped away by an expression of pure rapture, as if her work is somehow the will of God. Louise watches, horrified. Stab the needle into an eye and scream. Raise a hand up to heaven and praise Jesus. Yank the needle out and stab the other one. Raise both hands up to the heavens and smile widely. Eventually she knocks Louise out by banging her head against the wall while screaming at her to get out of the house. It makes no sense; all is madness. She talks to Jesus some more, holds up her hands as her eyeless sockets leak red rivers, falls to her knees, flops face-down dead. Because she, too, refused to see the wolf for what it was in the end.
We’re down to just Louise now, and she tries, in her father’s final moments, to give him the love he needs, but she only does that after trying to bolt from the house and stumbling down the front steps in her desperation to escape. She’s called back inside by his ragged breathing – but no one in this family has managed to save themselves so far, much less anybody around them, so Louise’s final attempts to rescue her father are futile. She tells him she loves him and he gasps for air; she tries to protect him, to tell him she’ll stay by his side. But it’s too late. He dies. And before we have time to even think about what that means, or what has happened to his soul, we hear Mama singing somewhere in the distance, and then the monster from the first scene pops into frame and snatches Louise away as she screams – which pretty much tells us all we need to know. No souls were saved during the making of this movie.
There’s a lot I didn’t even mention in this long-winded review. Charlie commits suicide after witnessing a bloody vision of Louise and his granddaughter shows up to creepily torment her. There’s a lot of reading from Mama’s journal, many stilted conversations between the siblings, Mama’s singing of religious tunes, her collection of tiny, cheap crosses, a weird makeshift graveyard of Mama’s favorite sheep, doctors who refuse to move Papa to a safer place, and much more I am sure I’ve forgotten. It’s pretty astounding how much misery and detail this movie packs in to its 1 hour and 35 minute runtime, which is part of what contributes to the feeling of despair and utter exhaustion you feel after watching. This movie is relentless in its depiction of grief and desolation. It’s powerful and compelling, but it will wear you out – much as this long-winded review/analysis/whatever you want to call it may have done, and if it did so, I apologize. But I’ve finally spit out my thoughts about this movie a year after watching it for the first time, so I’m going to pat myself on the back regardless.
Watch it, but prepare yourself for a beautiful, miserable ride.