Liu Xing (Ye Liu) has come from Beijing to a nameless American university to pursue a PhD in cosmology; he's done smart, incisive work in the field, and he's being given the chance to work for groundbreaking theorist Dr. Reiser (Aidan Quinn). It's a wonderful moment for Xing; he's found opportunity, and a place that will gratefully take everything he has to offer. The feature-film debut of opera director Chen Shi-Zheng, Dark Matter follows Xing as his dream, slowly and gradually, becomes a curse -- and shows us the desperate, dangerous expression of Xing's sadness and confusion.
Written by Billy Shebar, Dark Matter is inspired by the University of Iowa shootings of November, 1991, where physics post-graduate student Gang Lu killed five people and paralyzed another for life before killing himself. But Dark Matter isn't a ticking-clock thriller; it's a more contemplative film than that. The camera captures big visions and images, and it isn't concerned with the nuts-and-bolts shots of a crime story. Instead, we see Xing, in the rain, transfixed by a statue of famed American astronomer Edwin Hubble. Xing wants to look to the skies. Of course, he still has to live on Earth. ... Modern physics has a paradox at its heart -- we can calculate the mass of the universe based on empirically measurable factors, but the visible matter in the universe makes up only a fraction of that total; there must be something out there, some dark matter that has presence and mass but is invisible to sight. Under Reiser's direction, Xing is looking for that dark matter; the work is arduous, tedious ... and, as Xing comes to realize, possibly headed in the wrong direction; Xing keeps finding problems with Reiser's methods and models. Reiser, of course, is put off -- he took on Xing to have his ideas supported, not subverted -- and he slowly, surely begins shutting Xing out of possible advancement and projects.
But Xing isn't just facing clashes at work; he's also dealing with being adrift in a new world. Local Chinese culture buff Joanna Silver (Meryl Streep) is a wealthy, discontented philanthropist who takes the Chinese students for field trips to places like the local Pioneer village and the mall; for all her talk of 'giving something back" and "making a connection," it's clear she's just distracting herself from the dissatisfactions of her own life. Xing's letters home -- to his mother and father who work menial jobs and live in squalor in China -- go from breezy optimism to out-and-out lies as his life falls apart.
Shi-Zheng -- not surprisingly -- has a deft hand at incorporating music into the moments of the film; he incorporates music ranging from Bach to techno music, Antony and the Johnsons to "Flight of the Bumblebee," each working with the feel of the film and helping craft its slow, careful effect. And Shi-Zheng also has a warm and welcome sense of humor; when the Chinese students tour the Pioneer village, we cut to their Wild West imaginings, shot like a Sergio Leone-style shootout. When Reiser invites Xing to a conference, he promises "Great food, free booze and beautiful -- albeit high-strung - women." But those moments recede as Xing's life goes from dream to nightmare; Joanna's attempts to help seems more and more useless, another student more amenable to concealing Reiser's failings passes Xing on the promotion path, his fellow house mates leave him. Xing can't go home to China, and there's no place for him in America. Reiser is a hero who becomes a bully ("You feel free to challenge me all you want; just remember I'm always right. ..."); Joanna's good intentions are nothing more than brief rest stops on the road to the end. But Quinn never becomes a mustache-twirling bad guy, and Streep never lets Joanna descend into caricature; a final scene between Joanna and Xing, as she tries to support him in the only work he's been able to find -- selling beauty aids door-to-door, as a cosmologist becomes a cosmetologist -- has a sad, fierce charge to it.
Shi-Zheng and Shebar try to explain Xing's final act, but they never excuse it; we witness the pressures and pains Xing is subjected to, but we also know that he's ultimately responsible for his actions. (In fact, we never see where, or how, Xing gets the gun he uses in the film's finale -- an omission that can be seen as either maddening slackness on the part of the creators or a bold decision to stay on-topic.) And Liu's performance as Xing is actually excellent; Xing is clearly intelligent and passionate, but he's not quite adept at the things -- English, office politics, disconnecting from work -- that would help him move forward, and the more blocked he becomes, the more he thwarts himself. Trying to explain his field of study to Joanna, he looks up as a theater ceiling flecked with painted-on stars: "No one pays attention to (dark matter), because they don't see it." And as we watch him bustle from his shabby rental flat to the lab and back again, we realize the same could be said for Xing himself.
Dark Matter is more poetic than plain-spoken, more beautiful than blunt. But it does ask us to contemplate the nature of work and power; as we cut between Xing's father sifting coal and Xing spending long nights in the lab, we're shown the similarities between mining the earth and mining data. The finale of Dark Matter is completely expected, but hardly complete: Even though we're shown how Xing comes to his ultimate flawed conclusion, we're still left with much to wonder about. Dark Matter reminds us that not all the mysteries in the universe are overhead, and there's as much invisible darkness in the human heart as there is in the night sky.