Paving the way for a brand-new subgenre — the gay romantic thriller — the atmospheric neo-noir Out in the Dark tells of a Palestinian university student who seeks refuge from the homophobia of his traditionalist West Bank village in the more gay-friendly atmosphere of metropolitan Tel Aviv.
There Nimr (Nicholas Jacob) falls in love with Roy (Michael Aloni), a privileged Jewish lawyer from a seemingly liberal family. Israeli-born director Michael Mayer handles their love affair with sexual candor, but his heroes' godlike physical beauty also, somehow, projects a blazing, innocent purity.
As Nimr slips back and forth between the big city and his loving but hidebound home, the two men briefly inhabit an illusory free zone, letting down their guard to bask in the freewheeling colorblindness of a community that understands marginality all too well. Then, shattering the lovers' fragile bubble, Mayer throws them into the cauldron of the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.
Rejected by his devoutly religious mother, sister and a militant, gun-running brother on the one hand, Nimr is also the target of manipulative Tel Aviv intelligence operatives, who want him to spy on his fellow students at Birzeit University. (If you think the plot is far-fetched, I refer you to The Gatekeepers, a sobering Israeli documentary about Shin Bet's divide-and-conquer machinations in the West Bank.)
Tel Aviv and the West Bank may be worlds apart in terms of culture, politics and religion, but Mayer cleverly merges them into a single claustrophobic continuum of paranoia, violence and corruption that corrodes everything it touches. Soon Nimr finds himself on the run, his loyalties cruelly divided by forces larger than himself. Nor will family prove a reliable refuge; just as Nimr is devastated by his mother's response when he's outed, so Roy is embittered to learn that his nominally enlightened parents' liberalism has its limits.
Out in the Dark suffers a bit from a stiff, sometimes sentimental script, co-written by Mayer and Yael Shafrir. And stuffing the Israeli mafia into the plot feels like gilding the lily.
But as the movie gathers steam, it deepens into an examination of the way politics and tribalism can contaminate everyday life. Here, they sink in so thoroughly that even the two-against-the-world solidarity of young men in love becomes stained with mistrust and betrayal.
In such a universe, the movie's climax tells us, there are no clean hands. Nimr and Roy find themselves trapped between two crippling forms of anxiety: the Palestinians' rage and sexual terror faces off against a deeply rooted Israeli fear of being engulfed by the Other. It's a lethal brew, one guaranteed to bring out the bully in otherwise decent people of any stripe.
Inevitably Nimr, who has no power in either world, takes most of the brunt. But in the end, Roy too learns what it means to be a disenfranchised outsider cornered with no exit. There's heroism and an escape of sorts in Out in the Dark — but in Mayer's despairing vision, there are no winners.