The Austin Chronicle

The Dark Divide

Not rated, 107 min. Directed by Tom Putnam. Starring David Cross, Debra Messing, David Koechner, Kimberly Guerrero, Cameron Esposito.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 18, 2020

When you hear that there's a film called The Dark Divide, and it's about a lone man with nothing left to lose heading into the Pacific North-West in search of Bigfoot, your first thought would be, "well, that's a horror movie, right?"

You have no reason to expect a beautiful, quiet, lyrical, funny wilderness trip, a meditation on loss and picking up the pieces, and the most perfectly poignant performance of David Cross' acting career, all based on the best-selling autobiography of a leading lepidopterist (butterfly expert, to you and me). Yet that's exactly what you get with documentarian-turned-narrative-director Tom Puttnam's freeform adaptation of award-winning scholar and writer Robert Pyle's Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide.

The book was Pyle's recounting of his 1999 trip across the pristine but imperiled wilderness of the Juniper Ridge, in the shadow of Mount St. Helens. It's really a sociological history of Bigfoot, and our desire to believe in the great beast of the woods, but Putnam puts that to one side, instead focusing on Pyle himself (he even changes the nature of the Guggenheim grant that paid for the trip, from searching for Sasquatch to hunting for butterflies, just to keep the cryptozoology at arm's length).

As played by Cross, Pyle seems very likely to be eaten by a bear. The first he is seen, he's running half-naked through the woods in a raw, hairy panic. That's one of three emotional states he seems to be able to manage, the others being polite indignation and amiable cuddliness. The only reason he's taking this seemingly suicidal trip is because his beloved wife, Thea (an unrecognizable Messing) has forced him to get out of the house. It's what he needs, and what he's going to need, because there's a shadow coming that's too bleak to bear.

Cross' version of Pyle builds on his established persona as the pleasant bumbling goof, and converts his knack for low-key pratfalls into some understated yet dangerous stunts (there's no way to fall down a lava flow in your tighty whities without getting a few scrapes). Yet while The Dark Divide is often wonderfully funny, it's also a deep, charming, and often extremely touching drama about a man with a void in his life. There's a sequence in which Pyle stumbles across a First Nation family (including a delightfully obnoxious cameo by David Koechner) on a ramble, and he joins them for dinner. Across a campfire, Pyle opens up – just a little – and it is one of the purest moments of performance of the last year, up there with Marc Maron's understated relationship monologue in Lynn Shelton's Sword of Trust. In this moment, Cross reveals Pyle as a quiet man with a knapsack full of emotions and nowhere to unpack them.

Putnam turns Pyle's search for one hirsute semi-human into a quest for his own true nature, and that's a beautiful, lyrical shift - a beauty matched only by the extraordinary wonder of the region, as captured by cinematographer Sean Bagley. He catches the wonder and the danger, the ruggedness and the fragility of these woods, just as Cross charts the tender inner turmoil of Pyle. It's all a reminder of how vulnerable our world is - as vulnerable as the human heart.

The Dark Divide is available now as a Virtual Cinema release.

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