In the stylistic tradition of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) blended with the contemplative imagery of Robert Frost and the darker ponderings of Edgar Allan Poe, Jeff Burr’s “Straight Into Darkness” follows the journey of two American soldiers lost in the winter woods of a 1945 Europe. Deming (Scott MacDonald) and Losey (Ryan Francis) have deserted their units, and wander through the forest in search of a physical and mental escape from war. When they stumble upon an abandoned church, they make a grisly discovery. From this point on, Deming and Losey find themselves on a path straight into darkness.
Shot on location in Romania, Burr’s antiwar film focuses on two individuals whose personalities create a binary opposition not only in terms of character traits but also in the way they’re presented. Deming, the tough guy, is only concerned about his own welfare and will not hesitate to kill anyone he deems a threat or a nuisance. The film does not reveal much about his thoughts or what kind of man he was before the war. He is either one-dimensional or simply not as accessible to the viewer. Losey, on the other hand, only kills when he has no other option, and is considerably more likeable. In contrast to Deming, the audience is privy to Losey’s thoughts and history. Burr begins the film with and continues to include flashbacks of Losey’s life. Even though Deming and Losey do not initially like each other very much, Burr meaningfully develops their relationship. They start out sticking together out of necessity, but by the film’s end, it is clear that they remained together by choice. They both desert their respective units, shedding the responsibilities of protecting “the group,” but they end up finding another one that they are more willing to defend.
Like “Thin Red Line,” “Straight Into Darkness” questions the purpose and consequences of war. Some criticisms appear in dialogue, others take the form of montages. While the film avoids overt political commentary, it addresses the devastating aftermath war—innocent people die and humanity erodes. What is particularly commendable about “Straight Into Darkness” and its depiction of the horrors of war is that the film takes a less confrontational approach to presenting violence. For instance, in the first couple scenes of the film, Deming and Losey are being transported by other American soldiers. Their jeep unknowingly drives into a field of land mines. When the mine-checker solider is blown into the air and lands with a semi-thud, there is sufficient amount of blood on his face, which suggests that he has suffered severe injuries. When the camera cuts to a shot of the man’s wounds, you only see a glimpse of purplish-redness, signifying “massive internal injuries.” The camera immediately cuts away because the director knows that there’s no need to linger.
Additionally, after the commanding soldier steps on a mine and dies, Deming proceeds to beat the dead man’s face. You never actually see fist-to-face contact, but the camera reveals enough for you to understand perfectly what is happening. Not to say that Burr shies away from graphic imagery, because he includes explicit depictions of violence after Deming and Losey have reached the church (to emphasize their descent into darkness).
From bathing the film in a bluish-gray hue that occasionally warms to oranges and yellows, to creating and sustaining dramatic tension, Burr proves he isn’t just skilled at filmmaking; he’s acquired more than techniques. He’s cultivated an artistry that distinguishes him from other filmmakers. Burr is able to lock an audience’s curiosity, undivided attention, and emotional involvement. Some of the audio is a bit soft and there are a few awkward dissolved shots where sprocket holes and the film’s time code is visible, but you will forgive Mr. Burr of these minor incidents. The first few images of snow will captivate you, and within minutes, you won’t want to stop watching.