“The Dark Divide” – “I’m actually searching for new species of (butterflies)…and moths. In fact, three years ago, I discovered six new species, and that is a Xerces Society record. I’ve authored several books on the subject. It’s kind of a big deal, just so you know.” – Robert M. Pyle, Ph.D. (David Cross)
Dr. Robert M. Pyle – a lepidopterist and college professor – is a big deal. It’s the summertime in 1995, and he’s about to embark on a new assignment. You see, the Guggenheim offered him an $11,000 grant to take a 30-day expedition in search of new butterfly and moth species. In one way, this golden insect-opportunity nestles perfectly in his comfort zone, but he faces a daunting task. He’s supposed to explore the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, a massive 2,000 square-mile woodland in Southern Washington, but Dr. Pyle’s camping experience is minimal. He’s had a few “overnights.”
Personally, the thought of sleeping outdoors for a month straight is causing this critic to curl up in the fetal position. Well, our protagonist’s outlook is more optimistic! He feels semi-ready for the challenge, so he thinks.
Writer/director Tom Putnam adapted Dr. Pyle’s book “Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide” to the big screen, and although the film includes several Sasquatch mentions (and possibly a sighting or meeting), the narrative is more about one man’s journey.
Cross – probably best known for “Mr. Show with Bob and David” (1995 – 1998), “Arrested Development” (2003 – 2019), and his standup act – steps into a welcome soft-spoken role as Robert. Sporting a long – but well-groomed – gray beard that rivals David Letterman’s post-“The Late Show” chin and cheek locks, Cross carries a university-academic look quite well, along with a matching intellectual persona. So much so that a few butterflies (or stylish moths) sit nearby or rest on his shoulder.
Dr. Pyle could use a friend.
Putnam sets most of the film in the great outdoors (and on location in the aforementioned forest), but he intermingles several key flashbacks during the first act that successfully establish acres of empathy for Robert. We easily root for the good doctor, while his passage through the Northwest timberlands involves much more than cataloging his findings.
He’s finding himself.
Even though Cross pulls on some comedic threads – including camping mishaps (one inspired by “The Blair Witch Project” (1999)) and many scenes when he’s only wearing tighty whities and hiking boots – he’s generally playing it straight. “The Dark Divide” isn’t a riotous comedy.
It’s a soulful, pleasant journey.
A toe-tapping score with smiling banjos, violins, and perhaps a piano accompanies this gentle being, as he attempts to heal while making peace with the beyond-sprawling, unfamiliar terrain. If you’ve seen Emilio Estevez’s “The Way” (2010), you might find that Robert’s on-screen story is a companion piece. In the 2010 drama, Estevez’s dad Martin Sheen plays a man suffering from a loss and explores the El camino de Santiago, and the gorgeous landscapes from both movies offer warm companionship for our isolated leads.
Like Tom (Sheen), Robert is not an outdoorsman, but our “The Dark Divide” hero appears prepared with his giant red backpack and oversized net for meeting new friends. Straight away, Dr. Pyle would fit nicely into a Wes Anderson flick. “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012) immediately comes to mind, but please note, the Khaki Scouts would probably mentor him.
Here, Robert is his guide, and hopefully, he’ll make it from Highway 12, over to Mount Adams, and to the Columbia Gorge. Throughout the 101-minute runtime, Putnam seems to showcase all 2,000 square miles of the forest’s wondrous eye-candy, and the film might inspire you to grab a pack and a compass and head outside. Perhaps, you’ll also pick up a butterfly net and discover a new species or two.
I don’t know if you’ve heard, but studying butterflies and moths is a big deal.
⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Trailer credits: Merrell