watched: ‘Dark Days’

‘Dark Days’ is a movie I circled around, picked up, put back, picked up again for literally years. Then it went out of print and I forgot about it until I stumbled into a copy today.

It’s a documentary about homeless people living under the subway system in New York. They have shacks, they cook and clean, keep pets, regret their mistakes, laugh.

In short, they’re a lot like everybody else, except everybody else doesn’t have rat patrol as part of their domestic chores.

I liked about three quarters of the movie – the director, Marc Singer, does a great job of just letting people talk. Much of the movie is shot inside the shacks, as the residents gradually reveal their histories.

Singer lingers, holding the camera steady as people explain how they ended up homeless, how they survive, how they see each other – most of the talking in the movie is between two residents, not resident to interviewer. You can’t help but be impressed with what they built from trash. It’s a movie about hacking, about using what you have to solve horrific problems.

Unfortunately, the movie changes abruptly – Amtrak decides to evict the squatters. Despite the conflict that sets up, the last 20 percent of the movie fails to engage, while getting preachy. We see the residents chopping apart their shacks, taking up homes in apartments. They seem happy, and the movie bows deeply to the social agencies who deal with this sort of thing.

It’s a relief to know the tunnel people caught a break – especially after stomach churning scenes of latrines being emptied, and of residents picking through garbage for uneaten food. But it doesn’t feel like the uplifting finish the director wanted, just an oddly conventional end to a tale of life unconventional, life as a work in progess.

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