Darlin’. 2019. Directed & Written by Pollyanna McIntosh.
Starring Lauryn Canny, Pollyanna McIntosh, Cooper Andrews, Nora-Jane Noone, Bryan Batt, Eugenie Bondurant, Jeff Pope, Mackenzie Graham, & Lauren Ashley Carter.
Hood River Entertainment
Not Rated / 100 minutes
Disclaimer: The following article contains significant spoilers.
Turn back, lest ye be spoiled!
Offspring and The Woman were horrifying films in their own right— each based on Jack Ketchum novels, the latter co-written with director Lucky McKee. The first film explored a thin line between so-called civilised society and primitivity with gruesome, awesome B-movie results. The second film looked specifically at civilisation through how society destroys women, right down to the family level. Pollyanna McIntosh— who played the Woman in both films— takes over the reins to complete the trilogy. She moves this film to a logical conclusion in a saga about the violence of misogyny and sexism, taking aim at one of the worst perpetrators: the Roman Catholic Church.
At the end of the previous film, the Woman walked off into the wilderness with a new family of women, including the youngest Cleek daughter, Darlin (played in this film by Lauryn Canny). In Darlin’, she tries to take her surrogate daughter for medical attention at the hospital. Darlin ends up swept away in the system. Soon as the local Bishop (Bryan Batt) discovers there’s “a true innocent” amongst them, the church takes upon itself the task of civilising the girl.
Except civilisation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be these days.
McIntosh’s role as the Woman, while significant, takes a backseat to that of Canny’s Darlin, whose odyssey into modernity via the church is as illuminating as it is ghastly. Canny gives a powerful performance. Her alternating vulnerability and strength throughout makes for a stunning character study. McIntosh’s brilliant writing is what ultimately steers the whole thing in a compelling direction. The Woman was an unsettling view of misogyny. Darlin’ goes deeper and becomes, somehow, more disturbing due to a woman’s perspective behind the camera and in the screenplay offering insight of which men simply aren’t capable.
The woman said,
“The serpent deceived me,
and I ate.”
— Genesis 3:13
The Catholic Church is particularly bad, though Christianity as a whole is steeped in misogyny and sexism. The concept of original sin is predicated on Eve being at fault for eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eve became a perfect scapegoat, giving the church an easy way to subjugate women by considering them the major cause for the fall of man. Christians would also have you believe Eve came from Adam’s rib, which subverts the truth of female biology in favour of religious myth.
Many quotes from the Bible exemplify how deeply ingrained this attitude runs through Christianity, such as Timothy 2:12 (“She must be quiet“), Genesis 3:16 (“Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception…”), or Colossians 3:18 (“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord“), which are only but a few of the many passages that perpetuate discrimination against women based on gender.
McIntosh makes brilliant choices as director when it comes to imagery. The Bishop’s office has a couple different paintings in it. A prominently featured piece of art is the Lucca Madonna by Jan van Eyck (featured in the image above), painted in 1437. In the painting, the Virgin Mary is depicted as an altar on which the Christ child sits nursing. She becomes an object— woman, and mother, are something upon which men sit, something they use. This is the way the church treats women, as a means to an end. In the film, the Bishop uses Darlin twofold: to gratify himself, and to make sure his church is taken care of financially.
There’s an interesting contrast made between the taking of a name at First Communion and a woman taking her husband’s name in marriage. Darlin is given the name Eve as a new identity, symbolically erasing the person she was before, similar to how slaves were stripped of their family names and given slave names as an attempt to eradicate their culture / history. She’s put in a wedding dress for First Communion— a stark image of the accelerated loss of innocence Darlin, and all girls, are forced to go through in the face of misogynistic institutions like the church (and others).
This lost innocence is a recurring theme throughout Darlin’.
“No girl is exempt”
A poignant perspective on innocence involves how young girls are shaped by the church, and society, from an early age. Darlin’s own experiences with misogyny began with her father, whose twisted worldview we saw in 2011’s The Woman. Yet she’s lived away from society long enough she isn’t quite brainwashed by the patriarchy, taken from her family before her father’s ideas about women sank into her psyche. The other orphans— who’ve lived among the ‘civilised’ all their lives— display just how early girls must learn all the horrifying ways their lives are affected by gender.
One part of the screenplay briefly looks at the adult knowledge these girls are conditioned to understand. Darlin’s pot smoking friend Billy (Maddie Nichols) reveals a grocery delivery driver feels her up in exchange for weed, already resigning herself to the idea her body = currency. Maybe worse is the fact Billy says she isn’t afraid of the grocery man because she knows he doesn’t want to go any further “with a kid.” After the girls all discover Darlin is pregnant, many of them know too much for their age, made evident by their thoughts on abortion. One girl suggests using a “coat hanger” to get rid of the baby, another pipes in to advise a laxative overdose, and a couple of them offer to toss her over the stairs. The fact these girls know a variety of methods to abort a fetus is troublesome.
Their knowledge is due to the misogyny of men and religious oppression of a woman’s bodily autonomy: a priest rapes you, impregnates you, and the church forbids you to abort it, so a girl has to get creative. This is most darkly presented in the finale when Darlin consumes bleach— an allegory for how thoughts and prayers do nothing for girls grappling with real physical issues, leading them to drastic, often lethal action, whether it’s abandoning a newborn or a homemade abortion. Once Sister Jennifer (Nora-Jane Noone) reveals the Bishop raped her as a girl, and he blames her for seducing him, it’s obvious these are the sort of destructive lessons in gender the church teaches, whether purposefully or inadvertently.
Who and what is civilised? This is one of the major themes in Darlin’. The Roman Catholic Church presents itself as civilised in opposition to the world in which Darlin existed with the Woman. Funny to compare the idea of transubstantiation (eating the body+blood of Christ) in the Catholic Church with the actual act of cannibalism committed by Darlin and the Woman— the church may not LITERALLY eat Christ’s flesh, though they believe it, but they absolutely eat their young alive in more ways than one.
Not only that, patriarchy as a system determines what’s deemed civilised v. what’s abnormal. Apart from the misogyny / sexism, McIntosh’s screenplay cleverly includes the character of Tony (fellow Walking Dead alumni, Cooper Andrews), a gay nurse. Tony falls outside heteronormative society that the patriarchy, of which the church is a part, sees as a signifier of civilisation. Like the Woman, Tony’s conception of family is considered uncivilised compared to the mother+father+two kids nuclear unit that patriarchy, aided by religion, promotes as the proper configuration for a family.
The great irony being Tony and his partner would make MUCH better parents than anyone connected to the church’s oppressive ideology. Far greater irony: Darlin was better off in the Woman’s care, and her baby girl will too, raised outside patriarchal notions of family / gender, away from institutions that prey on vulnerable girls.
Pollyanna McIntosh’s film isn’t just a forward step in storytelling across this trilogy, it’s the best of the three. Darlin’ combines themes from Offspring and The Woman, diving headlong into the plight of women everywhere by looking at a microcosm of what patriarchy and religion do to society. The finale feels like a full-on horror version of the ending to Paul Schrader’s fabulous First Reformed, showing the extent to which women are driven by male-dominated forces.
There’s a pressing, intense energy about this story in 2019. Darlin’s exploitation and threatened autonomy is exponentially horrific in the current U.S. political climate. American women are fighting for their rights as the current administration continually tries to propel the country back to the 1950s. Families are torn apart at the border, where children are kept in cages by people who believe in the delusion that they’re the civilised ones. These sad images of America are unshakeable as we watch Darlin resort to drinking bleach instead of being explained she has plenty of other options besides becoming an adolescent mother, or when she’s locked in a cage and filmed with a smartphone as a political prop.
McIntosh gnaws at the heartstrings while also eviscerating patriarchal notions of what it is to be a woman. The film isn’t as graphic as either of its predecessors, aside from a few key moments of blood + gore. It succeeds in horrifying through ideas. And the most terrible aspect of these ideas is they’re not foreign to us. They exist all around us, all the time. They’re deep-seated beliefs chiselled into the foundation of our society. The only way we’re ever going to undo them is by tearing down the system and rebuilding— not unlike the way the Woman redefines family by starting her own and cauterising her girls from a diseased society, giving them a chance to grow unfettered by patriarchy.