By Christopher Burke
Liam Gavin’s 2016 horror film A Dark Song opens on a long-distance shot of a rural landscape, the grasses and clouds still and converging in the bottom half. A tiny blue car is the first sign of motion, going slowly left to right, and then suddenly against the lonely vastness of the sky and earth we’re introduced up-close to the grim determination of a lonely Sophia, a mother grieving from the loss of a child, as we’re soon to find out. The smallness of the human activity in this first shot against the grand landscape is soon reversed for the rest of the movie, spent in the confinement of a house and up-close dialogue between Sophia and Joseph Solomon, a tormented man of dubious moral character but with a great deal of familiarity with Gnostic rituals who’s going to help her speak to her guardian angel so they can each request a single divine favor: in her case, to speak with her dead son. However, as we learn more about the shifting complexities of Sophia’s loss, guilt, and faith, the film culminates in a gracefully simple moment with the angel, both intimately personal and cosmic, that effectively conveys a sense of the sublime and serves as a point of convergence for the shifting desires and motivations throughout the film. In the end, after emerging from this brief moment amounting to a single sentence spoken in the form of her request, Sophia’s grim expression we first saw while driving in the car is repeated, but this time it ends in a relieved half-smile, transformed.
“Be washed of my transgressions”
Sophia’s willingness to go to extremes for her initially vaguely stated goal(s) is introduced in this opening act as she invests considerable resources into procuring a house that meets numerous odd specifications within which to conduct a ritual–the Abramelin–that might take 6-8 months: an absurd amount of time to most viewers, I’m sure, and especially so when compared to portrayals of occult rituals in most horror films. This sense of deeper time helps make the events inside the house, spanning the majority of the movie and happening to two flawed, discarded people, feel cosmic in significance as the physical and emotional are stretched to their limits in order to commune with the divine. The seasons shown passing periodically outside indicate both the length of ritual and adds color to the theme of transformation. At the end of it all, after months of mounting horrors and torturous ordeals, Sophia is saved by the sudden appearance of a shining light dispelling the dark blue-gray hellworld that the lower floor of the house has turned into. As she follows the light, we’re presented with an unambiguous, direct depiction of the guardian angel the two have been summoning: it is perhaps the least ambiguous of all the events of the plot, and if handled differently could have easily made for a cop-out of an ending. Instead, the scene stands out as a moving portrayal of the culmination of a personal journey of transformation through grief and doubt and entropy. As Solomon states (the latter part I think quite tongue-in-check through the fourth wall), “The Abramelin…it’s essentially a journey. That’s a poor metaphor, but it’ll do.”
In this moment, the favor she requests of the radiant, golden, Romanesque giant of an angel is not to speak with her child, as she has often stated previously, obsessively. Neither does she request vengeance as later stated, a petty indulgence at which Solomon scoffs, but rather the power to forgive, the notion in its entirety to which she has been steadfastly opposed and pointedly working around ritualistically by drinking blood at great risk to herself. In this one hesitant utterance to her angel is captured a summation of all her doubt and guilt and rage and grief, all the complexities and shifting motivations of her character arc, her damaged family and community relationships, articulating a simple truth about surviving grief that has eluded her all along, lost within the “hole” she’s had where her child used to be.
“Do the ritual. Talk to your guardian angel. Talk to your child.”
Unfortunately for both Sophia and Joe Solomon, her would-be guide to all things occult, the steps aren’t quite so simple as he angrily puts it on their first day sealed in the house behind a salt barrier. A crucial point of the ritual is that it’s contingent not on moral virtue but rather on truth and purity of drive, and as Solomon repeatedly points out to Sophia, “a half-truth is a lie.” This is an early signal to the audience that much will be revealed in things left unsaid, of truths too painful to utter even for a person brave enough to endure the Abramelin. At frequent points of contention between the two characters, something important is revealed that she has been keeping hidden, highlighting a back-and-forth pattern of both interpersonal and self-deception that informs Sophia’s drive and therefore puts the ritual’s success and their safety at great risk.. “Is it the truth?” he asks of her motivation. “That’s important.”
The ritual they’re conducting is all about transformation, phase changes, and each half-truth that eventually gets completed resonates differently when measured against the idea of forgiveness conveyed in the film’s most important moment, and it gives us additional ways of understanding why she so steadfastly refuses to engage with the notion of forgiveness for much of the film. But, as Solomon frequently points out, this ritual is all about phase changes: cosmic, material, personal. It’s also why even the most extreme of materialist readings of the film, wherein it’s almost all hallucination or a long con, still work to some degree, because whatever it was it forced the transformation within her to occur. In the angelic moment, within the long hesitations when she utters her request for a favor we can hear these half-truths and deceptions being finally confronted and transforming her inside, and I think even if the delivery of the same words were considerably differently, then this ending might not work or cohere with what preceded it. In the gaps between words she is still fighting to finish what she started long ago.
All these dialogues between psychological and supernatural explanations for the world of the film foreground one of the central dilemmas at the heart of the film’s horror element: is it a more terrifying prospect if we’re all alone in the world or if there’s something else, too vast to comprehend? We know Sophia is a doubter, quite clearly, during a contentious discussion with her sister highlighting their differences of faith.
Victoria: “I believe in God.”
Sophia: “What’s that supposed to mean?…Where is God? Where is His goodness?”
This early conversation sets up the ritual as a “long dark night of the soul” situation. Her impatience with the ritual parallels her impatience with the grieving process. Different as grief might be per individual, we can at least say the path she has chosen to deal with it is a dangerous one and ethically dubious. Solomon also takes care to point out changes of “Object to subject or subject to predicate,” suggesting she must transform not just herself but the way she relates to the events that haunt her and therefore how she relates to the external world. We see this shifting notion of subject/object reflected in the framing devices used by the camera, initially viewing her from a great distance and then cutting to the car’s interior just in front of her face, an angle mimicked in the film’s concluding seconds. We’re reminded again of the concept of angels having charge over humans in the opening quotation, and the subject-predicate relationship contained therein.
The physically abject acting as corollary to spiritual suffering is a narrative device older than I care to calculate, but it works well here without feeling cliche, precisely because of the specific ritual and emotional journey chosen. The theme carries on through to the moment of her divine request, her face bloody and hand mutilated yet filled with a sense of the sublime that renders itself as the worthy goal. Throughout the deep time of the film, the ritual is intimidating regardless of how much one believes in its legitimacy at the cosmic level. The grief over the loss of a child is compelling background regardless of the circumstances surrounding it. The physical acts in the rituals trace her journey from a desire for vengeance to a desire for forgiveness by gradually forcing out of her the harsh truths she has allowed to consume her about her own circumstantial role in the events that led to Jack’s death. As the house is unshackled from the world, the cleansing process becomes metaphysical. When she is driving back to civilization and sees a passing car, indicating she is no longer in the strange between-world she wandered in before, it indicates a radical shift in her desire to be among humanity when she scorned the idea before. Solomon repeatedly asks her, in their moments of greatest conflict, why she doesn’t do the ritual on her own. “You don’t need me.” She’s always convinced she does need someone else for the ritual even as she rejects everyone else in the rest of life. Sophia does complete the ritual on her own after Solomon dies, or at least muddles through it enough for the angel to get the idea and show up to save her from her demons. Turns out she needed to believe in her own goodness all along..
“I don’t do forgiveness.”
Eventually, a sticking point in the ritual emerges when some step requires an act of forgiveness never specified for the viewer, and Sophia immediately makes clear that she is opposed to the notion. The ambiguity of this simple declaration, seeming to apply both to the idea of her seeking forgiveness and granting it, creates a perfect setup for the final moment with the angel. The progression of the favor she seeks and the details behind it reflect the basic steps of the grieving process, unique for everyone though it may be; bargaining, anger, acceptance. A common progression told compellingly, making the road to acceptance convincingly hard-earned, thus avoiding the pitfall of a saccharine, overly conservative ending that undoes all the horrors preceding it. We get only the barest glimpse of the radical transformation she has undergone and terrifying truths she has learned, but it’s enough to both reassure in its specificity to Sophia and unsettle all over again in its general cosmic structure. .
The dialogue surrounding Sophia’s motivations is artfully crafted such that a rewatch in light of all the revelations about her son reveal that all her statements are in fact technically true but misleading, and the frequency with which Solomon has to peel back those layers to reveal the half-truth she’s not telling is where most of the real story exists. At first she’s doing the ritual for love: she loves someone who doesn’t love her any more. Then she reveals it’s her child who has died rather than the romantic sense that Solomon and presumably most viewers took for her meaning at first. Here she reveals that he was taken from her and she believes it was her fault. We don’t know what she would say to him at this stage, though we later have an opportunity to hear her speak to an impostor of him and reveal what she might say, but above all she is driven to speak to him again.
After Sophia succeeds in convincing Solomon to participate by giving him a few more details about her goal, he repeatedly emphasizes to her that everything has consequences, truth and purity of drive are crucial to the success of the ritual, and a half-truth is a lie. The constant conflict between the two as they struggle through the months of repetition and deprivation becomes more violent as she changes her favor midway through and reveals a very different context to his loss: “I want vengeance. My child was murdered by people doing a ritual.” In further conversation, we learn that it was “teenagers playing with the occult,” rendering her desire for vengeance perhaps even more petty while also highlighting failures of the justice system, a matter to which the breadth of the concept of forgiveness as explored in the film also applies. “I will give you your vengeance. I promise you.” His words turn out to be quite ironic, his death being a natural vengeance according to him as a result of the harm he’s done to her, but we can’t forget that immediately following Solomon’s sexual deceit and humiliation of her she urinates into his soup. In the midst of an occult ritual, who knows if that had any role to play here, but in his death and her presumed “vengeance” against him for his violation. Either way, if that is how she conceptualizes violence, she gets vengeance against him, though she also has the power to forgive, so perhaps he’s not damned in the manner she hoped the teenagers would be damned.
“Damning teenagers. You could ask for so much more. Personal things, transformations…Well, they’re damned anyway.”
Solomon scoffs at many of Sophia’s stated motivations precisely because they do appear to be too grounded and limited, given the scope of what they’re preparing to summon. “You mothers and your children,” he scoffs. He’s dismissive, but it’s a useful moment that again calls to mind the epigram and the skepticism with which Sophia met her “baby sister’s” offer to take care of her. In this cosmic scheme and in the internalized social construct of motherhood, Sophia has failed, at least in her mind, and this failure binds her guilt and rage to one another in a manner that has estranged her from family and placed her in danger. Forgiveness becomes the vertex of this triangle, appropriately enough given the ritual’s use of the shape.
When the house overlaps with other worlds and she converses with the voice of her dead son, we learn more about the deep sense of guilt that drives her that will later be brought to mind by the hesitation in her voice as she makes her request. The demonic entity using her son’s voice asks her if, on the day he was picked up from daycare by an impostor, she was “with that man.” She doesn’t answer, too ashamed. These details complicate the notion of forgiveness further, giving it more breadth such that when the power to forgive is requested, we can’t help but understand that she also seeks the power to forgive herself and likely considered herself unworthy of her son’s forgiveness. This all adds further depth to a scene earlier in which Sophia rips apart a picture that she’s in with Jack, removing herself and crumpling it to indicate her inner guilt, which grows progressively more palpable the further along the ritual goes. In its initial context it comes across as an expression of guilt, but reconsidering it after the film’s conclusion provides a reading of it as a willingness to reengage with life without being held back by what happened.
Solomon wants to disappear, to get away from the world, in contrast to Sophia’s act that starts with her getting away from the world and finishes with her smiling in relief at the first sign of another person to confirm that she’s not still “unshackled from the world” like in the montage of her wandering the roads of rural Wales, unable to find another soul. He wants “some quiet before the howl…I’ve waited for you.” In this moment of personal catharsis for him, he creates a change of the subject-object relationship alluded to earlier and on which the plot’s faith trajectory is built.
“It’s actually a bit of an ontological issue.”
There is so much fear and trembling, hesitation, reverence, quiet confidence, and layers of motivation roiling beneath the surface that are all conveyed in Catherine Walker’s awestruck delivery. Its nuance and hesitations recall and account for all the shifting rationales that she has given the viewer, Joe, and herself for embarking upon this cosmic endurance test. It makes the movie more dynamic than any of her other stated desires: much of the bleakness and slow horror that has come before leads one to suspect that it will continue that trajectory, right up until its final desperate moments fleeing the demonic torturers, and its ending creates a sense of resolution and validation that is rare to see executed without it being a cringing disappointment that undermines what came before. Not so here, as there comes in this moment not a restoration of order that existed in the story’s beginning, but a radical transformation of self and relation to the world that comes of necessity with the glimpses she has seen (as long as one eschews a solipsistic and entirely psychological reading of the film, hinted at to create depth but not meant to be taken to such an extreme).
The sense is that Sophia is asking her guardian angel not just for the power to forgive the people who killed her child, but also the ability to forgive herself for her moment of negligence. It is no coincidence that for much of the movie Solomon tells her she could complete ritual herself without him, a suggestion she dismisses with a lack of confidence in her own abilities. And yet after he dies she manages to do just that, mirroring the necessity of finding new ways of existing in the world in the wake of such grief. Further, there is the sense that her quiet rage against the injustice of the world necessitates her ability to forgive the order of things in order to continue existing within it, as the film’s final few seconds hint. Perhaps even the power to forgive God, if one wanted to take the upending of cosmic order to a further extreme than I think would be reasonable.
The revelation of the angel in this penultimate scene, radiating golden light, shining through all we remember of the gray clouds and drab stones outside, the blue-gray basement and damned souls, and the brown wood of the house’s interior, worn from months of ritual practice. The sense of the royal and divine, the sublime and humbling, seems to freeze time itself (and we have seen strange temporal anomalies earlier in the film as well), turning the moment into a brief eternity during which all of the emotional complexity comes through in Sophia’s choice of words, her hesitation in the face of what’s before her and what she must ask, her soft but determined cadence, her newfound sense of humility. We’ve generally only seen gold in the form of candlelight, another device linking the cosmic to the practical via ritual. The mustard yellows that frequently show up on the house walls and Joe’s headwrap all have a sickly finish to them, calling to mind his infected wound in juxtaposition to the healing contained in the apparent granting of Sophia’s favor by the angel.
As Sophia musters her voice to utter the request for which she has been persevering through this ordeal, the nuances of Walker’s performance are given the opportunity to shine by being positioned against the inaudible angel, whose voice can’t be discerned but which causes the room to tremble. This is, after all, a personal journey, so if anyone hears the angel it’s only Sophia, though even she might not be able to perceive its speech either The hesitation in the face of the sublime and self-doubt, soft confidence, humble awe and fear and guilt, all of these qualities convey the multitude of shifting emotional stakes relating to her son that we’ve encountered throughout the film. The importance of her voice and honesty here is underlined by the deceptive use of her deceased son’s voice earlier by the unknown damned entities that torment her from behind doors, hiding away in the dark in contrast to the shining angel. The undetectable voice of the angel and reassuring facial expression creates a stark contrast with “Jack’s” frightened, deceptive cries and soft but painful questions meant to reflect Sophia’s inner torment. There is a sense of raw honesty in Walker’s voice in this moment that conveys this multi-valenced sense of forgiveness and to who/what that forgiveness might apply. It is a testament to the power of the script that this was kept so concise. The film leaves “forgiveness” artfully vague but utterly convincing of its breadth of applicability. Forgivenesss doesn’t just serve the narrow purpose of providing closure in the form of forgiving the people who took her son from her, and that’s part of why this film’s ending shouldn’t be written off as conservative or ineffective from a horror standpoint. She is emerging from the experience fundamentally altered and relating to the world in entirely new and likely still frightening ways informed by the secrets she has glimpsed.
“The favor I want is…the favor I want is…I want the power to forgive.”
In the midst of this line requesting the power to forgive, working in conjunction with the organ music and other elements to create the illusion of time stretching out, we see a rare case of a separate event–significantly, outside of the house and salt barrier–cutting into the “dialogue” with the angel. For brief moments we see Sophia wading into the pond or stream outside to dispose of Solomon’s body, the religious use of water as ablution for both of them on full display in this specific brush with grace. “A Dark Song” presents a rare case wherein a resolution of this sort manages to be hard-earned and full of powerful sentiment while avoiding the pitfall of becoming saccharine, largely thanks to the nuance of this moment. There is a sense of some closure, but also Sophia is fundamentally changed irrevocably, having attained an unsettling knowledge of damnation and the secret architecture of things not meant to be known.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
The repetition throughout the film of “I don’t do forgiveness”–unclear in terms of who is the forgiver and who the forgiven–lends itself to this broad sense of the word, stretching from selfhood into the vastness of the cosmic architecture so briefly glimpsed. It’s interesting under these circumstances that the “I don’t do forgiveness” as a refrain eventually morphs into another refrain: “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” I think what makes forgiveness so provocative and not necessarily “neat” in this instance is the fact that, given the “architecture” of the film’s cosmos, the term could be taken as not just relating to interpersonal forgiveness of murderers and the forgiveness of oneself but also possibly in a broader redemptive sense of the word. This suggestion bubbles up to the surface when, cut into the scene conversing with the angel, Sophia is shown respectfully leaving Solomon’s body, wrapped in yellow and drifting into yellow aquatic flora, in the stream or pond nearby. He has been abusive to her by his own admission, and he’s also certain he’s damned, so we’re left to wonder if the power of her forgiveness extends to redeeming such souls. After all, the favor he plans to ask for, “invisibility,” means more at a cosmic level than the simple fact of being physically undetectable to the human eye, so “the power to forgive” beyond the mere interpersonal and social is plausible at least to the extent that one buys into Solomon’s explanations.. I think we’re meant specifically to apply that reading to her relationship with Solomon, given the editing of a final cleansing by water for both of them into the scene with the angel. Since Solomon is tormented by the certainty that he, like most, is one of the damned, and he frames his request of a favor from that assumption, that iteration of conception coheres well enough with everything else. Could Sophia theoretically forgive anyone for any transgression, whether or not she was a victim? It’s a powerful, artfully suggested question with which to conclude the film. I don’t think we’re meant to push our reading of the film so far as to think saving others from hell is the main point, but it lingers in the background, heightening the dramatic intensity and creating a sense of unsettlement even while providing some sense of closure through transformation.
The film spends much of its runtime walking a tightrope of ambiguities, with supernatural explanations for anomalous events coexisting with plausible psychological explanations. In another pointedly tongue-in-cheek moment early on, Solomon is scornful of psychological reductions of the supernatural experiences under discussion. However, this is where the film shines at a structural level. Each scene that presents something that seems substantial “proof” to the viewer of the supernatural is followed soon later of effective dialogue that offers a rationale under which the strictly material and psychological could account for it, or at least create reasonable doubt. The effectiveness of the film’s climactic moment requesting the power to forgive is contingent on the audience juggling both of these facets when we hear the word “forgive.” It isn’t particularly moving because it’s a story of lost faith regained. It’s moving because it presents a powerful emotional journey that stands on its own regardless of how literally one takes the final manifestation of the divine, which could, under the parameters of plenty of horror films, end up explained away as dream or hallucination. We’re certainly given the necessary foreshadowing, given her reference to a history of psychiatric hospitalization. Thankfully, the film avoids such an easy way out.
The effect of her encounter with the guardian angel, whether real or hallucination or pure symbolism, ends up being much the same, because it has been her internal journey all along that mattered more than the surrounding intrusions of the cosmic, and part of that journey is the humbling of the need to ask for help when she has eschewed her family and others. The cosmic, centered for so many of the specific plot events such that her original motivations take a back seat until they once again have a reason to shift, takes its turn to move to the background ironically enough during its most direct manifestation. It is a moment that also functions by suggestion much like the scene in the Wizard of Oz where it is revealed that the characters had what they needed all along. In “A Dark Song,” the act of recognizing the need for the power to forgive is itself the act of coming to understand that it was there all along.
She seeks to forgive herself and in asking does. She seeks to forgive the world and in asking does. She seeks to forgive Solomon and in asking does.
This moment requesting the power to forgive is further complicated in provocative ways by an earlier conversation with Joe Solomon when he reveals that he has learned a truth from his own journey, which is the unsettling certainty that most people are damned. He plans to request something that will give him temporary peace before eternal damnation. We can even read Sophia’s desire for the ability to forgive to be one that might operate on a higher level than merely the interpersonal. Of course, in some readings of the film, he could be continually bullshitting her. But supposing he’s being sincere in relating his occult experiences, could this power granted by an angel give her the ability to forgive people who would otherwise be damned, rather than just being part of accountability between two people? In her apparently successful request for the power to forgive, the encounter with the angel forces us to confront the fact that through her shifting and dishonest motivations, she was granted the request in a Monkey’s Paw sense before she changed enough to share the most uncomfortable truths. She wanted to talk to her son and she talked to her son, though it wasn’t her son. She wanted vengeance and to damn the people who killed her child; she learned that most people are damned anyway, presumably including the murderers, and the man who sexually exploited her and promised to give her vengeance died horribly of a stab wound, the price he says he must pay for harming her. “I’ll give you your vengeance.” It just wasn’t the vengeance she had in mind most of the time, but maybe it was when she urinated in his soup. This time around while watching the movie, I really wondered how much we’re meant to make of how that act might be woven into the consequences of the ritual they’re conducting, and in the context of forgiveness it warrants consideration..
When Solomon is instructing Sophia about how the ritual works in cycles, he tells her: “Each time we move on, it (guardian angel) will grow more powerful.” Over the course of the film, as events have bound her journey through grief to the need for forgiveness and her ability to have faith in the divine is tied to her ability to have faith in herself despite her “transgression,”, this line reads entirely differently if we reconsider it as moving on from the death that has held her back from living. When Sophia drives away from the house having let go of Joe and her son enough to return to life, the credits begin to roll over softly melancholic but gently hopeful piano music.
“This is the price of our rage…Poor us.”
There is a political resonance to all this as well, which has only really emerged for me on these most recent viewings. Although there are overt moments of political conflict through the lenses of class and gender, I only recently started to consider the connection between Sophia’s inner conflicting drives for vengeance and forgiveness as being the two main sources of conflict in approaches to criminal justice, and the film does give us plenty of evidence to consider in service of such a reading. One could look at all the criminal justice systems that have existed and whether they are more greatly predicated on punitive social vengeance or on the idea of forgiveness and rehabilitation. Forgiveness isn’t an empty idea under such conceptions and frequently entails things like earnest efforts towards restitution and restoration of damaged social ties, much as Sophia’s inner journey transforms her such that it becomes possible for her to live again and feel relief upon the sight of civilization. It is no coincidence that Sophia has been institutionalized in a psychiatric facility in the past and that the connections between carceral systems for criminals and psychiatric patients are often numerous in many different times and places, with a strong history of being predicated on being punitive. The world of the film doesn’t preclude a punitive nature to the cosmos–after all, we are shown depictions of and given convincing anecdotes about the damned, so I don’t think we can fairly say that forgiveness triumphs over it but rather that it might provide a means to get through it.
Present throughout the film are themes of class division, particularly resentment toward the bourgeoisie expressed by Solomon at Sophia. There are fundamental differences in criminal justice politics predicated on vengeance and those predicated on forgiveness, and that very conflict is often at the forefront of news headlines as are differences of class. Solomon’s cynicism and callous attitude toward Sophia in the beginning highlights the fact that money is very much a part of this, at least at first (and it’s important to note that Solomon’s motivations shift in interesting ways also): Sophia is spending at least £80,000 just on getting Solomon to look at the house, and she has already spent a boatload of money on renting it for a year, long-term supplies, etc.
The moment with the angel is powerful and works well under any and all of the possible readings I’ve considered on repeat viewings of the film, even, I think, the most extreme and solipsistic and boring ones that I would generally reject. The movie even remarks upon such interpretations with the tongue-in-cheek early line from Solomon about supernatural experiences that “People on the internet say it’s just psychological but that’s bollocks.” Even this remark operates in service to a greater purpose of ambiguity within the movie, precisely so that the climactic moment has greater breadth. If it were merely a hallucination, would it really change much about her transformation? I think that’s one of the most troubling but interesting questions raised by the film. That remark from Solomon about psychobabble on the internet is very closely juxtaposed with the revelation from her sister that Sophia was previously in a psychiatric institution and also the darkly humorous fact that Solomon prints reference materials for the ritual from the internet despite his scornful accusations that Sophia gets all her information there.. When it comes to their remarks, clearly we can trust no one entirely and have to make our way mostly in the dark the best we can, though the film offers us just enough guiding lights to make it all incredibly effective.
Text © Christopher Burke 2022