Dark Nature (2022)
Directed & Written
by Berkley Brady
Starring Hannah Emily Anderson, Kyra Harper, Madison Walsh, Helen Belay, Daniel Arnold, & Roseanne Supernault.
★★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay contains SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS.
Turn back, lest ye be spoiled!
The horror genre is loved for many reasons, one of them being because it’s a way to confront actual terrifying things through a cinematic safe space. Many folks, myself included, who’ve been through real-life traumas are such fans of the genre because it’s a way to figuratively deal with the residual effects of those traumas. Dark Nature depicts a group of women in therapy together who go into the woods to help each other heal, but they encounter new traumatic experiences as they’re hunted through the forest by something horrible.
Dark Nature is an authentic, fascinating exploration of trauma and the post-traumatic stress disorder that typically comes along with it, and it’s important that Berkley Brady, a Métis artist, is the director-writer behind it. The film presents a number of different women in the story who’ve experienced a vast array of traumas, from domestic abuse to witnessing awful things in wartime, and not all of the characters perceive the trauma of others in the same way or in the same league as their own; an honest portrayal of human reactions. The best part of Dark Nature is that we see women trying to help each other face their traumas, as well as an Indigenous approach to the process of healing that ties into the film’s terrifying force hidden in the woods embodying trauma in the land itself.
The character of Dr. Dunnley (Kyra Harper) represents a decolonisation of Western psychology and medicine. Just the fact that she’s taking a bunch of women out into nature as a way to do therapy is a step away from traditional white male psychology. Dr. Dunnley also directly refers to the effects of colonialism when she talks to one of the women about the area they’re in as a “sacred place” once used for “healing ceremonies” long ago. She says that location stopped being used as such due to the “colonial shitshow,” which could be said about how Indigenous medicine and psychology has been colonised by white people; surely the first psychologist/psychiatrist who tried laying claim to nature therapy of any kind was a white person, likely a man, when Indigenous people have communed with the land for thousands and thousands of years as a way of healing. Later when there’s a horrible entity revealed to be out there in the woods we see how colonialism has turned a once sacred healing place into an open sore in the earth oozing death, terror, and trauma. Trauma is then not only in the women who go out there for therapy aided by nature, not just in people, it exists within the land and nature because of the ravages of colonialism extending back generations.
The film is framed around Joy (Hannah Emily Anderson), whose traumatic experience with a violent, misogynistic boyfriend sends her to Dr. Dunnley, via a close friend, Carmen (Madison Walsh). The opening is harrowing, depicting such a realistic situation where a man reacts violently to a woman retracting consent—yes, lads, consent is an ongoing thing that can be revoked whenever a woman(/person) chooses—a situation so many women and femme-presenting people have experienced in their lives. Brady smartly, and rightly, portrays domestic abuse as the stuff of horror films.
From Joy’s trauma, the film moves onto a complex perspective on trauma by including a number of women with their respective life experiences with trauma. Brady’s screenplay gives us a look at how some folks turn psychological/physical damage into “trauma Olympics.” One of the other women on the retreat is an Indigenous woman, Shaina (Roseanne Supernault), who’s served “two tours” overseas with the military. She sees her trauma as more legitimate than that of Joy’s, which we see often in real life. People try to validate their own traumas by stomping on those of others, rather than joining together, like Dr. Dunnley wants the women to do out there, and helping each other heal.
Trauma is trauma, it’s all valid.We eventually discover that the monstrous thing in the forest effectively feeds off trauma, just like abusive men. The thing in the woods is paralleled with Derek, who uses Joy’s vulnerable psychological state as an abused woman to keep creeping back into her life and controlling her. The thing in the woods revisits the traumas people have experienced. We see this on a number of occasions throughout Dark Nature, such as a brief glimpse of Tara (Helen Belay) seeing her bloodied wrists bound in zip ties, or Shaina being taken back to the battlefield and seeing her friends die. The monstrous entity’s method of driving the women to madness and making them vulnerable to being its prey plays a big role not only as part of the plot, it also plays into a visual motif Brady uses throughout the film.
Dark Nature, through its monster, features visual portrayals of the way post-traumatic stress disorder can affect people. Early in the film Joy’s trauma comes back in a sliver of memory about her dog being killed by Derek when somebody mentions a dog; a perfect visual, as well as audible, representation of a PTSD trigger and the flood of memory that comes after it. In moments where the monster messes with Shaina and Tara, as well as the other women, we see the ways PTSD can, at times, make the sufferer question their reality. The plot’s finale features Joy revisiting her trauma while conquering the monster. She sees a vision of Derek, then symbolically kills her trauma by stabbing the creature and setting it on fire.
Berkley Brady’s Dark Nature is all around a refreshing horror take on trauma. Perhaps most of all, the relationship between Carmen and Joy is an important fictional showcase of what it’s like dealing with the traumas of people we love. There’s a moment or two when Carmen gets upset with Joy because of how the latter seems stuck in the relationship with Derek, but we see very clearly that Joy is an abused woman, which is a complex psychological state. Yet it can be difficult to deal with other people and their traumas, especially when you have your own; it’s a messy human situation, not everybody reacts appropriately at all times and not everyone can continue to take on the emotional baggage of others’ traumas.
In the end, Joy and Carmen are perpetually there for each other. They keep each other alive, figuratively and quite literally. And while there are things up in the air regarding Derek when Joy and Carmen are ready to go back home, this new traumatic experience in the woods, along with the undying support of Carmen, has given Joy all the strength she needs to go back and face whatever she must face.