"You think you know about pain?"
So began Jack Ketchum's 1989 novel The Girl Next Door, a story about a teenager who suffers unspeakable torture from neighborhood boys as well as a sadistic parental figure. The novel was disturbing for a lot of reasons, chief among them being the idea that those we trust the most—those whose job it is to guide and protect us throughout our lives—can be the source of our greatest torment.
In the case of Darlin’, the abusive protector is organized religion, and the victim is women. Just as in real life, the abuse is hardly even hidden…sometimes it’s even celebrated.
Like Ketchum, Pollyanna McIntosh is a master at social commentary. But McIntosh is more than simply the spiritual heir to Ketchum’s continuing saga of “The Woman,” which began in his novel Offspring. With Darlin’, which she wrote, directed, and starred in, McIntosh confidently delivers a movie that’s as empowering as it is shocking, smart, and wicked gory.
Darlin’ is a direct sequel to 2011’s The Woman, which involved a piggish lawyer trying to “civilize” a wild woman by keeping her prisoner and allowing his sons to join in the humiliating torture. While The Woman mostly relied on shocking hyperbole, Darlin’ has a much more realistic take on how women are treated with systematic inequality.
The movie begins with a young and "uncivilized" girl, Darlin’, wandering into town with The Woman. When they approach a hospital, the girl is hit by a car and taken inside for care. When the doctors discover she’s feral and “beast-like,” the head of the Catholic organization which runs the hospital decides it would bring a lot of great publicity if they can turn her into "a proper girl."
At the Catholic orphanage where Darlin’s taken, her appointed protectors cover her in dirty and stage humiliating photographs inside a cage, mainly to show the media what an ungodly feral creature she was before they “fixed” her. Despite all their talk about helping Darlin’, the so-called guardians take a lot of pleasure in punishing her and the other girls at every opportunity, and they excuse this mistreatment by saying, "There can be no ‘after’ without a ‘before’…just ask Jesus."
The man in charge promises Darlin’ salvation, and throughout the movie he insists there’s a demon inside of her that only God—rather, his Earthly conduits—can remove. However, for all the convincing sweet talk about saving Darlin’s soul, it becomes quickly obvious that the man feels entitled to take whatever he wants from the women under his tutelage, including coerced sexual favors.
"Leave a girl along long enough," he explains, when confronted by a nun he’d sexually assaulted as a teen, "and someone will take her. It might as well be a man of God."
There are several instances throughout the movie where the movie’s thesis is further explored. During her journey to rescue Darlin’, The Woman stops a man from raping a homeless woman as her friends watch helplessly. At a later point in the film, a man quickly dismisses a prospective molestation victim as “impure” the moment he discovers she’s pregnant, thereby seeing her as merely a sexual object. During a private discussion, another girl at the school timidly tells Darlin’ how the owner of a convenience store only sells her cigarettes if he’s allowed to feel her up.
In lesser hands, the movie as a whole would likely fold under the weight of the social commentary. One of McIntosh’s greatest successes, however, is keeping the story moving at a fast pace without sacrificing the movie’s message or becoming condescending.
For all the heavy social commentary, Darlin’ also manages to deliver some brilliant comedic moments. One of my absolute favorite moments is when The Woman forces a male nurse (played by her fellow "The Walking Dead" alum Cooper Andrews) to help her find Darlin’. The only way to get to Darlin’, however, is with a car…and The Woman has never been inside a car before. For her, it’s a terrifying experiences, but audiences will definitely fall out of their seats laughing as McIntosh plays the scene to the hilt.
Another great decision from a storytelling standpoint was to spend a bit of time developing the comradeship between Darlin’ and the other teenage girls at the Catholic orphanage. They laugh together, they protect each other, and they dance with unbridled energy to pop music playing from shared headphones. The other girls stop seeing Darlin’ as "beastly" and start teaching her from their own experiences how the world works, both the good things and the bad things. These human coming-of-age moments are all very heartfelt and overall necessary; we watch Darlin’ grow out of the roles that influencers in her life have forced her into, and we see a believable transformation take place.
For any genre fans worried about a lack of blood, rest assured: the gore effects are absolutely fantastic. Darlin’ has quite a few extra-bloody moments that made my stomach churn in the best possible way. One minimalistic scene involving only a bottle of bleach made me cringe in my seat, and I believe that’s the mark of truly effective storytelling.
Darlin’ is an extremely bold directorial debut from McIntosh, and it will have a strong effect on moviegoers across the board.
Also, be sure to stay for the post-credits scene—you’ll leave the theatre with a smile.
[RELATED] Interview With Darlin' Writer, Director And Star Pollyanna McIntosh