The title’s a bit grindhouse—eat your heart out, Abel Ferrara—and the last 15 minutes of this slow-burner, about a Chinese physics student gone berserk on a college campus, are pretty close to exploitative. But even if real-life events at Virginia Tech didn’t totally toxify Dark Matter’s commercial prospects (only weeks after its award-winning 2007 Sundance premiere), you’d still be eyeballing a sadly uneven affair.
Inspired by a 1991 shooting at the University of Iowa, the movie devotes an impressive amount of its running time to subtle differences between Eastern and Western ambition. Smiling Liu Xing (Liu), thrilled to toil all night on the theories of his hotshot adviser (Quinn), seems unable to pinpoint the exact moment when his selfless kowtowing triggers a competitive revulsion. His dissertation suddenly thrown in his face, the kid bites back.
Director Chen Shi-zheng is better known for operas. He imports some of that feel for emotional musicality in the movie’s Asian pop-choral score and the occasional bursting supernova, pyrotechnics that don’t add up to much in the way of profundity. The tensions of intellectual pride demand a quieter address; Dark Matter might have played like Shattered Glass in more capable hands. Still, these performers achieve a freshness despite dramatic shortcuts in the script, especially Meryl Streep as a slightly dotty, kindhearted Sinophile who endows the school with money in exchange for the students’ social company.
It’s a small part, but pivotal to the distractions that plague a somber mind.