'The Dark Divide': Film Review

The Dark Divide
Courtesy of Dark Divide LLC
You'll enjoy going along on the journey.
9/18/2020

David Cross and Debra Messing star in the real-life tale of a naturalist exploring a vast national forest.

For a movie about a lepidopterist, The Dark Divide is awfully entertaining.

(There will now be a brief pause while you look up the word "lepidopterist.")

Now that you know the term refers to people who study butterflies and moths, we can continue this review of this film based on nature writer Robert Pyle's book Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide. It chronicles his dangerous 1995 marathon trek through Washington's mountainous Gifford Pinchot National Forest, one of America's largest undeveloped wildlife areas. As the book's title indicates, Pyle traveled through the region in search of Bigfoot, but the film adaptation makes that a minor, albeit amusing, aspect of the story.

David Cross stars in this comedy-drama, which is reminiscent of Carroll Ballard's well-regarded 1983 adventure film Never Cry Wolf (which featured an equally nebbishy protagonist, played by Charles Martin Smith). Director-screenwriter Tom Putnam, whose previous work consists mostly of documentaries, adds a strong emotional element to the film via flashbacks to Pyle's relationship with his wife, Thea (Debra Messing, very effective in a rare dramatic role), and her struggle with ovarian cancer, which eventually killed her. As the film would have it, the grief-stricken Pyle undertakes the adventure, one that Thea had long encouraged, shortly after her death, but the reality is that she died eighteen years later.

No matter. It's a small quibble with this highly engaging film, which Cross anchors with a touching and funnily self-effacing turn, although even the actor's devoted fans might wish there had been fewer scenes of him nude or in tighty-whities. Sporting a flowing white beard that makes him resemble a 19th-century naturalist (and the real-life Pyle), Cross proves instantly relatable in his character's many missteps: nearly falling off a cliff while chasing a butterfly, getting beaten up by loggers, suffering a cut to the top of his head when an owl decides to perch on it, and enduring close brushes with bears.

"I have a Guggenheim!" Pyle declares about his financial grant to several unimpressed locals he meets along the way, including a skeptical convenience store clerk (amusingly played by comedian Cameron Esposito) and a sardonic Native American with whom he engages in a spirited debate about the merits of spotted owls and conservation in general. The latter is played by veteran actor Gary Farmer (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Smoke Signals), who nearly steals the film in his brief appearance.

At one point, Pyle discovers a suspiciously large footprint, and there are several jocular references by locals to Bigfoot. But fortunately the film doesn't dwell too much on that aspect of the story, instead concentrating on the main character's arduous journey, which proves as spiritual as it is physical. Cross' comedic bona fides are hardly in question, but the actor also handles the role's dramatic demands extremely well, fully conveying Pyle's lingering grief and growing awareness that he had in no way sufficiently prepared for the many challenges he would face in the unspoiled wilderness.

The film, shot largely in the story's real locations, reflects the obvious love of nature of its director, who grew up in rural Oregon and spent much of his younger years hiking and fishing in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The gorgeous and often forbidding scenery (there's a harrowing episode set in an underground lava tunnel) should provide a visual balm to those suffering the claustrophobic effects of quarantining. The terrific music score, featuring numerous contributions by The Avett Brothers, feels like a bonus.

Available in virtual theaters
Distributor: Strike Back Studios
Production companies: Public House Films, TBVE Films, REI Co-op Studios
Cast: David Cross, Debra Messing, Cameron Esposito, Gary Farmer, Kimberly Guerrero, Patterson Hood, David Koechner, Peyton Dilweg, Dyami Thomas, Olivia Ritchie, Brian Adrian Koch
Director-screenwriter: Tom Putnam
Producers: Aaron Boyd, Ryan Frost, Tom Putnam, Jory Weitz, David Cross
Executive producers: Thane Ritchie, Reap Thomas Hume
Director of photography: Sean Bagley
Production designer: Kat Audick
Costume designer: Jade Harris
Editors: Tom Putnam, Sam Hook
Casting: Jory Weitz

107 minutes