Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
When I was in school in Montana taking nonfiction nature writing workshops, there were several names that became central to the canon of “Famous Environmental Writers I Would Invite to a Dinner Party,” if ever asked that classic ice breaker question. Names like Rebecca Solnit, Bill McKibben, and Robin Wall Kimmerer often reached the top of my list. Then, I watched the 2020 movie “The Dark Divide” about nature writer and lepidopterist (butterfly scientist) Robert Michael Pyle, and the order of my list changed.
Set in the Pacific Northwest, “The Dark Divide” is adapted from Pyle’s 1995 book Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide. This story recounts Pyle’s experience hiking across the Dark Divide, the largest roadless area in western Washington, which boasts 500-year-old trees providing refuge to the northern spotted owl, a pivotal bird in Washington’s logging history. In the movie, Pyle is awarded a research grant to document butterflies and moths, and after the death of his wife, he chooses to go deep into the backcountry to work on this project and try to recover from the loss.
Pyle is played by David Cross, a comedian and actor notable for his work as Tobias Fünke in “Arrested Development” as well as the HBO sketch comedy series “Mr. Show.” “The Dark Divide” is a dramatic pivot for Cross – he’s quoted on his website that filming this movie was “the hardest, most grueling thing [he’s] ever done.” I have been a fan of Cross since “Arrested Development,” and I wasn’t disappointed seeing him in this more serious role. His chunky knit sweaters, salt-and-pepper beard, and makeshift butterfly net totally charmed me.
As great as Cross’s performance is, my favorite part of this movie is its handling of magical surrealism. It’s based upon a book that discusses Bigfoot encounters in the remote Pacific Northwest, so of course there are Bigfoot elements in the movie. As Pyle spends more time in the Dark Divide, he encounters unexplainable things like massive footprints, unidentifiable moans through the trees, and an experience in a cave that would be unsettling even to the most assured hiker. While Pyle, a trained scientist, wants to find logical answers to these encounters, the movie itself doesn’t try to explain away the unexplainable; it lets it exist as is.
A concept I’ve been questioning more and more lately is the expectation that all things need to have an answer, instead of accepting that there are things in this world that don’t make sense and never will within the narrow framework of Western science and technology. “The Dark Divide” does a good job avoiding the tendency to provide an answer to everything, and it’s why I’m still thinking about this movie a year after watching it. Some of the best movies and shows I’ve seen lately allow the surreal to play out on screen – “Reservation Dogs” and season two of “Fargo” come to mind as examples of this (two shows that also have strong rural themes and hint at a pop culture world increasingly attuned to featuring rural voices and stories).
This is not to say there weren’t parts of this movie that could have used a few more answers. I felt pulled out of the story during scenes that lacked continuity, like Pyle falling into a roaring stream with all his backpacking gear and not losing any of it or when he comes to the end of the trail without realizing he had been hiking days longer than intended. How could you not notice a dwindling supply of food with each passing day you didn’t allot for?
If you can put aside these less important questions, this film makes for a sweet escape into the backcountry of Washington and Oregon, where the views are to die for and the characters Pyle meets feel full and dynamic while adding depth to the story. If you’re at all familiar with the Pacific Northwest, this movie should be on your watchlist, and if you have any hankering for the extraordinary, I would put it at the top.
“The Dark Divide” is available to watch for free (with ads) on a variety of services, including PlutoTV, Amazon Prime Video (via Freevee), and Tubi. It’s also available to buy or rent on disc and via digital media platforms.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.