It’s difficult to think of a place where a love story can unfold that would more obviously announce its themes of unbridgeable distances and insurmountable differences than the Middle East. If its lovers happen to represent the region’s most evident geographical dichotomies, then one is in the realm of redundancy before the film has even begun. In Out in the Dark, Roy (Michael Aloni), a privileged Israeli lawyer with a fondness for impeccably tailored suits, falls in love with Nimr (Nicholas Jacob), a Palestinian psychology student with a precarious permit to enter Tel Aviv for an internship and dreams of getting his PhD at Princeton. Only a very nuanced directorial approach can rescue this premise from clichéd melodrama and the one-dimensional melancholy we’ve come to expect from such films. Instead of looking for depth or verisimilar romance, director Michael Mayer turns his characters into mere cogs in a pseudo-suspenseful thriller involving underground groups from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict attempting to blackmail Nimr into becoming a collaborator.
Mayer doesn’t spend enough time building Roy and Nimr’s relationship before putting them into jeopardy. Instead of caring about the threat to their coupledom on an emotional level, we’re left to look at Out in the Dark as a kind of fuzzy geopolitical lesson played out by characters who feel more like functions than actual people—the kind of hollow figures that deliver dialogue in video-game cutscenes. The film’s atmosphere also feels video game-like in the nocturnal claustrophobia it conveys, but also in the way it creates its atmosphere through a trite visual and dramatic template that includes sudden slaps to the face and the cringe-inducing, oft-repeated, and dishonest line, “Everything will be okay.”
Out in the Dark is a portrait of the impossibly hellish situation so many gay Palestinians must find themselves in, rejected by the family and nation they come from and by the ones they’d like to take refuge in. It’s also a critique of the perverse ways Israeli privilege works to instrumentalize Palestinians (“A dick is a dick,” someone says about the Israeli gay community’s supposed lack of prejudice), tease them with flimsy promises of shelter, and ultimately keep them in their (non-)place. That isn’t enough to sustain the film, which is marred by dramatic triteness (some scenes recall the generic and soulless footage of reenactment scenes from shows like Unsolved Mysteries) until its final sequence, at which point Mayer finally exercises restraint and a ruthless impertinence toward predictable denouements.