When grief and goals collide, a lepidopterist takes an ill-prepared leap into the Dark Divide and finds a reserve of bravery he didn’t know was within him.
The Dark Divide is based on a true story about butterfly expert (a lepidopterist, and yes – I had to look it up too!) Robert Pyle who embarked on a dangerous hike through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, the largest swath of unprotected wilderness in Washington State, in hopes of documenting new species of moths and butterflies. (The film is based on Pyle’s book, Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide, with “the Dark Divide” being the nickname locals have given the forest.) Along the way, he confronts many challenges within himself and within nature, ultimately triumphing over both.
Given that this is a true story, we know that Pyle makes it out of the wilderness, but this reality doesn’t take away from the tautness of the plot. Robert Pyle and his journey are in the capable hands of David Cross, whose deft portrayal of Pyle makes this largely solo expedition entirely watchable. Combine Cross’s performance with the talents of director Tom Putnam and the absolutely stunning scenery and you have a lovely film.
David Cross is joined in flashback by Debra Messing, playing Robert’s wife, Thea Pyle, who is dying of ovarian cancer. Messing shines in this dramatic role, dominating the handful of scenes that she’s in. Even at the end of Thea’s life, you can see why she was the love of Robert’s and the backstory gives more believability as to why he’d embark on such a treacherous experience. What better way to shout your grief than into the trees and see what echoes back?
Given the nature of the storyline, the cast is exceedingly small, and each character is well-chosen. Especially fun is a brief cameo from comedian Cameron Esposito, as a disbelieving convenience store clerk who’s wowed by Pyle’s inept planning. It’s also great to see Drive-By Truckers’ singer/songwriter Patterson Hood play a small but important role at the end of the film.
The real star is the Great Divide itself, highlighting how beautiful and unforgiving our gorgeous, precious wilderness can be. Pyle says he wrote the book in hopes of turning the conversation towards conservation, noting that the area needs more protection than it currently has. He found the perfect partner in director Tom Putnam, an Oregon native who grew up hiking the same trails as Pyle. Thanks to the work of these two, the audience is given a front row seat to a phenomenal forest – a feast for the eyes in the best of times, and an absolute tonic for those of us still quarantined at home. You’ll yearn to embark on a trek of your own, while also feeling motivated to help protect the land that all of us should hold dear.
The Great Divide is inspiring, both visually and mentally. It’s David Cross’s film to carry, and he does so with aplomb. You’ll be glad you joined him for the journey.
Nuggets – more film thoughts:
* There is a sometimes funny/sometimes serious “Did we just spot Big Foot” theme running throughout the movie, which is an entertaining diversion. Pyle obviously digs deeper into this in the source material, but the hint of it brings a little fun to an otherwise fairly straightforward plot. While starvation and loneliness are most likely the source of Pyle’s assumptions that Big Foot was nearby, it’s still fun to think about what could be lurking in the Great Divide.
* The soundtrack is fabulous and features tunes from The Avett Brothers, Patterson Hood, and Krist Novoselic’s Giants in the Trees. The use of music is sparse by necessity, so all of these cuts really pack a punch.
* There’s also a funny ongoing gag about Pyle constantly bringing up the fact that he has a Guggenheim during the rare times that he crosses paths with other humans. Hey, it’s not just food he’s starving for, so let the man have his humble brag.
* David Cross finally breaks Tobias Funke’s never nude streak!
* Sierra Nevada famously doesn’t advertise so it’s fun to see the beer pop up in a role of its own. However, that would’ve been a fantastic opportunity for one of Washington or Oregon’s many incredible microbreweries to get a moment in the spotlight so I’m curious about the non-local choice. Fort George, anyone?
* Yes, those are real butterflies! The film employed a “Butterfly Wrangler” and that job description alone delights me to no end.