The plot summary provided for Darkness Descends by writer / actor Frank Krueger seems determined to leave audiences underwhelmed. The summary talks of wars declared and the possibility of New York City itself being torn apart, and yet the film never quite lives up to these expectations. Rather — even if we ignore the ambitions of the summary — we’re constantly under the impression that the importance given to the situation within the film itself is more than a little melodramatic.
Supposedly based on true events, the film tells the story of a young documentary filmmaker named Chelsea (Kinga Philipps) who decides to explore the lives of the homeless community living in the abandoned subway tunnels beneath the city. These lives include tortured ex-cop Jake (Krueger) who — having been scarred by the evils of the world — is constantly trying to reject his inner good-guy, and the not-so-elusive Angel (Danny Trejo), whose apparent status as a legend is somewhat belied by how easy it always is to find him. The plot centers around a few jumbled ideas: Angel, who has a loyal cult following, is trying to serve “justice” upon the materialistic and greedy (with the occasional generic speech on society’s flaws); Jake is in mourning and seeking revenge for his wife (who was killed by Angel); and Chelsea, well, she’s just overly interfering and always seems to end up a damsel in distress. If that sounds confusing and unfocused, it’s because it is.
Part of the problem is that there are so many holes in the plot that it’s impossible to keep up. It’s entirely plausible that there was some sort of incredibly important message that the film was trying to communicate, but we’re so lost in all the questions it creates that it no longer seems worth figuring out. Firstly, Angel is given no motivation whatsoever — while the omission of a backstory is easily explained by a desire to keep his character shrouded in mystery, the lack of reasoning behind the quest for his personal brand of justice simply makes the entire movement seem illogical. His band of followers, though often referred to as an army, is almost comically paltry, with none of them seeming to understand what exactly it is they’re fighting for. Trejo himself is perpetually scowling, as is expected of his work these days (“Machete Kills” sums this up nicely), but with such an uninspired character, it’s a miracle he can portray anything but apathy.
Secondly, the only character given any real motivation is Jake, although the “police officer’s dead wife sending him into a destructive tailspin” trope is so common it might have been been better left alone. More bothersome, however, is the fact that if Jake was so intent on avenging his wife (who has presumably been dead for some time, given how settled he is into underground life) surely he would have gone looking for Angel long before Chelsea makes an appearance. I reiterate here that Angel is not hard to find — when Chelsea arrives, she merely has to ask a homeless man to point her in the right direction.
Such inconsistencies purely for the sake of validating the plot do Darkness Descends an injustice, making it seem contrived instead of allowing it to progress naturally, which would have invariably been more interesting. Perhaps the most engaging parts of the film are the cutaways to Chelsea’s interviews of various people living in the tunnels as well as the main police officer involved, although these quickly devolve from honest insights into affected platitudes designed to seem profound. These interviews are in fact the only moments in which characters speak like actual people, with all other dialogue largely revolving around metaphors and intense analysis taken almost straight out of any action thriller. It’s also hard to remain oblivious to the fact that none of these homeless people seem even slightly bothered by their situation, content to sit around a campfire singing songs and producing art; to produce a film in which the only trouble afflicting a homeless community is the existence of a man with a god complex is almost offensively idealistic.
Ultimately the script shoots itself in the foot, suffocating any original ideas in a sea of genre clichés that — given that the film doesn’t even settle into the genre of action thriller comfortably — often don’t make sense. Paired with editing that is frankly too aggressive, jumping from shot to shot with little sense of rhythm or consistency, and a budget that is clearly insufficient for its ambitions (a train explosion is so deliberately offscreen that intimidation turns into confusion) Darkness Descends struggles to be half as dramatic as it intends.