The existential questioning of our free will is a universal concern whether you’re a philosopher or a bored teenager, but how do you turn one of the fundamental issues of our lives into entertainment? Darrell C. Hazelrig steps up to the challenge with The Dark Companion, a very funny and potent short film involving puppets.
Howard is a puppet very aware that he’s not his own person. Living in a universe where puppets and humans interact as equals, he’s the only person that can see the featureless man dressed head-to-toe in black that controls him. Everything he does, says and feels is tainted by the idea that he’s living out a borrowed life. The doctor thinks he’s mad, his wife thinks he’s projecting, and the corrosion of Howard’s social life and sense of self leads him to despair. In vain attempts to rid himself of his ‘dark companion’, Howard resorts to ever more drastic measures.
The premise is a witty expression of an archetypal paranoia, and it takes very little exposition to elaborate the fears of Howard. In fact, it’s the simplicity and immediacy of the film that gives rise to my one criticism: that the short voice-over exposition that is there is made redundant by the overall success of the writing. Howard is instantly recognisable as a facet of our own experience, and is perfectly plausible in his emotional crisis. We can clearly see the disintegration of his life through the brief scenes he has with his friend, his wife and his doctor, nothing needs to be explicated.
Much of the verisimilitude relies on the two actors playing humans interacting seamlessly with the puppets – something which must be difficult, but they make it look natural and comfortable. Similarly, the smotheringly ubiquitous dark companion is played with assurance, adding to the immersion. We have the sense of Howard being watched at all times, inescapably, and when Howard speaks and the dark companion mouths his words alongside him, it’s slightly chilling.
Hazelrig has worked a lot with puppets before, serving as cinematographer on Shadow Puppets for instance, and The Dark Companion is interesting because it uses the nature of puppets as a physical manifestation of the subtext, rather than just as substitute for actors. The Dark Companion isn’t just a story played out with puppets, it’s a story that could only be made with puppets.
While the conclusion may not have anything profound to say about life other than providing a way out of the premise, that would be asking a lot from a 14 minute film. The Dark Companion remains a slick and funny short, packing a lot of fun into its brief runtime.