The catalyst of Kevin Tran’s “The Dark End of the Street” is a series of pet killings that rocks an otherwise quiet New Jersey neighborhood. In another movie, the subsequent manhunt would be the focus, with the neighbors serving as ancillary mouthpieces from which to sift clues. In this one, the crime becomes the throughline in an anthology of vignettes, taken from each neighbor on the block.
These vignettes aren’t even explicitly about how the crime affects each character, but rather how it brings about a sense of suburban malaise. When one doesn’t feel safe, comfortable nor satisfied with their home or life as they know it, where does their mind and heart wander? In the hours between sunset and sunrise, what promises can be made? What friendships can bloom? What atrocities can occur? When one is divorced from the pleasant, drudging facade of their daily existence, who are they, really?
Tran’s direction, bolstered by Sebastian Slayter’s cinematography, transforms the timeworn streets in daylight to a hazy, uneasy world at night, lit only by the orange glow of streetlights and the occasional car. Characters are often framed by hallways and doorways; the camera watches them from across the street. This voyeuristic approach builds tension when the pet killer is involved, but it also provides intimacy, making me privy to secrets only revealed in shadow, when the rest of the world is asleep and can’t hear. Coupled with a soothing, string-led score, the film’s atmosphere feels 15 degrees shy of a dream.
There’s an elegance, a confidence to Tran’s eye I wouldn’t expect from a first-time filmmaker. He knows just what needs to be seen to make a scene linger in my mind, often without relying too much on dialogue. In the movie’s opening, Marney (Brooke Bloom) comes home to discover her cat murdered and house broken into. It’s a painful scene, but it’s not gross. Bloom’s shrieks and Tran’s choice to show only a glimpse of the details speak more to the horror of the crime than any blood-soaked puppet could.
The vignettes go through a motley of characters, from the Korean parents nervous if the pet killer may target their daughter’s parrot to the skateboarding, PC-gaming teens bonding over kill-streaks and Cup O’Noodles to the local reporter with one of the most affected on-air cadences I’ve heard in years. Hell, even the pet killer gets a few segments; there’s no secret as to who they are or what their routine is. Despite what myths neighbors tell themselves about wanting to move to the suburbs for safety, the killer is revealed to be as much a part of the identity of this neighborhood as everyone else.
Some segments work better than others, and the deciding factor is simply how much I like the characters. My favorite interaction is between Marney and Ian (Anthony Chisholm), her neighbor from across the street. As he comforts her, equipped with a few beers, I can’t help but think these are the kinds of people Billy Joel saw when he wrote: “They’re sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone.” There’s such tenderness and intimacy in their story; it’s the most heartwarming part of the film.
I also enjoy the mini odyssey experienced by Jim (Scott Friend), who recently moved into the suburb with wife Patty (Lindsay Burdge) and baby on the way. When Jim meets up at drinking buddy/professional slacker Richard’s (Jim Parrack) house for a get-together with Richard’s friends, it’s like time-travelling back to every college party you’ve ever attended.
Guy with the weed hookup? Check.
Drunken dance party? Double-check.
Existential talk about the loss of ‘authentic experiences’ as a byproduct of technological advancements? Would it even be a kickback without one of these?
The malaise is set to “high” here, but it’s shot so warmly, with the kind of fleeting joy only the midnight hours offer, that the result feels honest.
I don’t recommend “The Dark End of the Street” for bombast or thrills. While the business with the pet killer can be likened to the wraparound segment of an anthology, the pace is lackadaisical, and despite coming in at less than 70 minutes, at times, I found myself checking my watch. This is no action movie. You are warned.
What I do recommend “The Dark End of the Street” for is its bittersweet mood, hazy atmosphere and delicate direction. Its drama is human, derived from the moments when people abandon their ruts and obligations for a flash of what-ifs, the vulnerabilities that lead them to their best (and worst) moments. To visually capture that ephemeral feeling throughout a collection of different stories, starring an array of folks from all walks of life, is impressive. It’s a promising debut for Kevin Tran and I’m intrigued to see what he sets his sights on next.
Daniel Berrios watches movies in Dallas with his wife and three meowing children. When not watching movies, he’s likely writing about them or discussing them on his YouTube channel. Outside of film, he enjoys “Borderlands,” cooking and playing a guitar that desperately needs new strings.