The rest of this beautiful film is the opposite of banal, and, in fact, the sheer ordinary-ness of the opening sequence serves to underline the universal truths “Wander Darkly” explores. After the flash of blinding light fills their windscreen, Adrienne wakes up in the hospital. Or, rather, she wakes up, and finds herself standing by her own bedside, looking down at her battered and bloodied body. Fragments of language come to her, as if in a dream. She hears herself pronounced dead. She sees her parents wailing in the waiting room when they get the news. Adrienne chases her own gurney down darkened hallways. There’s been a horrible mistake. She just had a baby. She can’t be dead. She looks on, in horror, when she sees her mother (the always-excellent Beth Grant) taking care of the child she had with Matteo. What happened to Matteo? Why isn’t Matteo caring for the child? Did Matteo abandon ship? Matteo eventually appears in whatever alternate-reality state she is in, and urges her to calm down, to remind herself of their story together as a couple.
The set-up of “Wander Darkly” may call to mind “Ghost,” at points, although some of its more unnerving effects are reminiscent of “The Sixth Sense.” But “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a potent connection, particularly in the presentation of memory as a fluctuating and living entity: memory is not “back there,” memory is “now.” But memories are also unreliable, and Adrienne remember things differently. Matteo and Adrienne wander in and out of their memories, and they re-enact the memories, while simultaneously discussing them. It’s such a poignant approach. It mirrors how the brain works, and how memories operate: time collapses, there’s no object permanence, memories overtake the senses, locations collapse. Adrienne moves from one memory into the next, quite literally, walking through a doorway in her home and finding herself in another location altogether. Different worlds and times encroach on the current moment: at one point, Adrienne stands in Matteo’s woodworking garage, thinking back to their trip to visit his family in Mexico. She looks down at the cement floor, and sees ocean waves lapping against her feet. This is all done with practical effects, and barely any CGI-flashery. Similar to “Eternal Sunshine,” this gives the often-unreal story a sense of tactile reality.
“Wander Darkly” is not some misty-eyed golden-hued stroll down memory lane. The title of the film is eloquent. Darkness threatens every moment. Adrienne has the distinct impression of being stalked, hunted, by a dark hooded figure, presumably Death itself. There are sequences when everyday reality seems to have been re-asserted, and Matteo and Adrienne are both back on the same plane of existence. But spooky glimpses of another world, of banal objects acting strangely—the digital clock in the car—threaten to derail Adrienne’s complacency that the nightmare is behind her.