Fenar Ahmad’s Danish thriller Darkland (Underverden, 2017), is a story of revenge that deconstructs today’s over-saturated superhero genre. Mirroring the seemingly heroic characters of comics books and graphic novels, Darkland imagines your average caped crusader at odds with the ramifications of their actions. As both a social commentary on class division and an exploration of the consequences of vigilante justice, Darkland brings a welcome degree of believably to larger-than-life genre.
Iraqui-born Zaid (Dar Salim) and his wife Stine (Stine Fischer Christensen) are only weeks away from celebrating the birth of their first child. A respected and skilled surgeon, Zaid left behind the community that raised him to enjoy a conformable lifestyle in the penthouse trappings of Denmark’s upper class. When his younger brother Yassin (Anis Alobaidi) comes asking for help from the gang life he was never able to escape, Zaid refuses him. A prideful man, who has likely never asked for help or favors, Zaid remains confident that his brother’s problems are not his own. But when Yassin is killed in a brutal attack, Zaid sets out to avenge his brother’s death.
Superheroes have changed how we see vigilantes, but revenge is a nasty business. Bringing brutal honesty to the subject, Darkland is a dark dive into how the vigilante justice presented in films would inevitably play out in “the real world”. Fueled by grief and frustration, Zaid’s noble quest for justice becomes an obsessive hunt for revenge. As a surgeon, Zaid sees the destruction of his crusade first-hand when his enemies begin to fill the emergency room. Unlike the many films that no doubt inspired him, Fenar Ahamad’s second feature is a deep character study that allows time for us the understand our hero’s motivation, struggles, and torment.
Dar Salim’s performance as a righteous killer is powerful, and ultimately frightening. As he navigates his way deeper into the criminal underground that swallowed his brother, Zaid is made to choose between his family and his need for retribution. Only a few moments in the film do we find ourselves actually cheering for Zaid. He is lost, searching for forgiveness and vengeance. Squaring off against a villain that claims to have done more to support their fellow Iraqui brothers in Denmark, Zaid is unsure if he is seeking to right the wrongs of his brother’s death, or balance the books of his own moral shame. Unable to reconcile the indifference he has for his own people, he becomes their protector when faced with the same apathy from the police. But unlike the superheros that shaped our sense of right and wrong, Zaid is not invincible. He does not have super powers, and he does not live in a world that will pardon the monster he must become.
It seems inevitable that the film will be adapted for American audiences. (All bets on Vin Diesel in the leading role.) Cut and paste the characters into New York, double the action sequences, add a motorcycle chase or two, and place a stronger (sickeningly sentimental) focus on the importance of Family– and you’ve got yourself an American adaptation. Turning the Batman story on it’s head, Darkland showcases the truly bleak darkness that can consume a person so focused on personal revenge. While this deep, psychological torment is usually absent in American heroes, Zaid’s story allows audiences a look into the world where happy endings are rarely found.
Released earlier this year in Denmark through Profile Pictures, Darkland was shortlisted for the country’s official Best Foreign Language Film selection for the 90th Academy Awards. Though Peter Schønau Fog’s You Disappear (Du Forsvinder, 2017) was ultimately selected, Darkland has succeed in presenting a familiar revenge plot, framed in strong cultural relevance. American audiences will recognize the class struggle at the core of this film, though the specifics of the turmoil in Zaid’s world may be lost in translation.
As someone who has outgrown the repetition of the superhero story, Darkland is the first crime-fighter story in years that has pushed the genre forward. Fenar Ahmad’s exploration of revenge is a bold, original take on a genre so familiar I almost (regrettably) skipped this film. Dar Salim’s subtly expressive performance almost brought me to tears in several scenes. In a year that I vowed to avoid all things Marvel & DC, watching this strong, bull-headed man allow himself to feel guilt and grief, and a sick sense of duty has been one my favourite movie-going experiences. Utilizing the fast paced, glossy cinematography tricks of blockbuster action flicks, Darkland tells a quiet, personal story of a man that takes up a cause, at the cost of everything he hopes to defend.