Combustible Celluloid
With: David Cross, Debra Messing, Cameron Esposito, Gary Farmer, Kimberly Guerrero, Patterson Hood, David Koechner, Peyton Dilweg, Dyami Thomas, Olivia Ritchie, Brian Adrian Koch
Written by: Tom Putnam, based on a book by Robert M. Pyle
Directed by: Tom Putnam
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 0
Date: 09/18/2020

The Dark Divide (2020)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Pyle Driver

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A good-looking wilderness trek that's likable enough for a few stretches, the biopic The Dark Divide is, unfortunately, frequently stretched too thin, and the main character's inexperience is often frustrating.

In The Dark Divide, butterfly expert Dr. Robert Pyle (David Cross) is struggling with his new book while caring for his wife Thea (Debra Messing), who is dying of ovarian cancer. He has often dreamed of a trip to Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington state to search for new species of butterfly, but he has never actually made plans.

When Thea passes, she leaves a surprise; she has applied for a Guggenheim grant to fund his trip. So in 1995, Pyle heads out, with little idea how to get by in an area that is said to be some 2000 square miles of wilderness. And, little does he know, he will encounter evidence of a species that most people don't even believe exists.

Written and directed by Tom Putnam (of the unfortunate The Hottie and the Nottie), and based on Robert M. Pyle's own book, The Dark Divide does a good job of balancing Thea's death and getting Pyle into the woods, but once he's there, it seems to flounder. Pyle's amateur mistakes are played with a blurry sense of both slapstick humor and pathos, and it's difficult to know what to feel, other than exasperation. When Pyle's pack tilts over and tumbles down a hill, our response is "how could you let that happen?"

Pyle's journey is also marked with many little montages (showing, for example, how he improves in crossing rivers and creeks), many flashbacks, and far too many pop songs. Moreover, the movie is peppered with the usual meeting of several offbeat supporting characters (played by David Koechner, Gary Farmer, Kimberly Guerrero, Cameron Esposito, and others), but many of these scenes don't really connect.

When The Dark Divide does work, it works best when Cross is alone, making little discoveries and deepening his sense of self. (Cross is usually known for his acerbic screen persona, but here he's quite touching.) It's too bad the movie as a whole couldn't have tapped into these small moments of beauty.

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