A sun-stroked profile of kook assemblage in a small, dry, ex-mining community at the outskirts of Death Valley, Nick Brandestini’s Darwin suggests both the impish faux-humanism of Errol Morris and the noble social perversity of Sherwood Anderson. Indeed, this rotation of 30-odd talking-head residents, most of them over 40, forms a kind of ferocious focusing of Winesburg, Ohio‘s already-microcosm; the town’s curiosity feels somehow hyper-definitive, like a lost and found for archetypes. A quasi-hippie, Kathy, decries her prescribed hippieness amid a pile of Native American paraphernalia while incoherently sketching her arrival to the town. A normalish retired couple, Hank and Connie, describe their need to forget the past in the desert with other “everyday” folks and provide an environment of permissiveness for their transgendered son. Susan, a nervous, aging, flared-nostriled postmaster with her own skeletons, criticizes the town’s lack of political organization even over the life-or-death issue of water acquisition. An epically mustached, retired prospector, Monty, longs for the not-so-distant days when Darwin’s mine, and by extension its brothels and saloons, was still active: In other words, the ‘70s. (The municipal retardation suggested by this detail is profoundly disturbing; it’s as though a raucous, anachronistic filth will simply materialize around any discovery of subterranean silver or gold.)
The film is most effective at its most aerial: The historical passages, complete with photoshopped daguerreotypes, are sinisterly antiquarian, and, more literally, there’s no mistaking the shriveled clutch of homes for anything but a happy, exquisite hell when viewed by helicopter. And Brandestini structures the film to lead us from this cute if genuinely unfettered chaos (in addition to the citizenry’s off-kilter personality, cops are scared to enforce anything in Darwin), to a more tragic, sympathetic fringe. But as the interviews morph from weird to weirdly intimate and the conversation begins to acknowledge the death wish of a top secret, WMD-testing military base not too far away, the content ribbons into a morbid, unsavory punchline.
Our surrogates of ordinariness, for example, are mean-spiritedly revealed as confused witchcraft-practitioners at about the point we’ve accepted them as survivalistic tourists. (“Fa-sallic symbols, is that what they call them?” asks Connie when discussing the “magic” wands used in Gnostic rituals; “Our god would be Odin,” says a darty-eyed Hank.) And the backloading of stories involving dead or estranged progeny and midlife skirts with the void further renders the town as a lunatic penal colony; the film’s trajectory really just connects a condescendingly funny kind of crazy to a sadder one. The documentary ultimately doesn’t so much flesh out its subjects as slowly tear their Band-Aids off after some administering some putatively good-natured noogies.