Set in 1980s Newfoundland, Black Conflux has an air of inevitability, and a foreboding sense of dread. There can be no doubt that this story will end badly. It seems certain that Jackie (Ella Ballentine) is going to cross paths with Dennis (Ryan McDonald). It also seems certain that if she does, it will not go well. You see, Dennis is an incel, or he would have been if that term had existed in 1987. He has a beer truck full of imaginary women who worship him, but he has nothing but contempt for the real women he meets. Jackie is a high schooler who has somehow caught Dennis’ attention, even though the two don’t seem to ever have met before. The more time we spend with Dennis, the more we come to think that the women in the beer truck might not be imaginary. They might be ghosts of other women that caught Dennis’ attention, and it seems like Jackie could be next.
Writer-director Nicole Dorsey’s talent and confidence are on full display in her first feature-length film. She has written two great characters in Jackie and Dennis. We quickly feel like we know them and can predict them, and Dorsey uses that to generate a great deal of tension in anticipation of the convergence (/conflux) of their stories. Adding to the tension are the slow pacing and the atmospheric shots of Newfoundland’s wild beauty, which reminded me there are plenty of places on the rock to hide a body or two or ten.
Dorsey is aided by two great performances from Ballentine and McDonald, who make their characters feel real. We care what happens to Jackie because we like her and we can relate to the teenage world she is trying to navigate, having been there ourselves. And while we don’t really like Dennis, we feel a bit sorry for his struggles to navigate the world he inhabits, even though he’s clearly making things more difficult than they need to be. Jackie is the more sympathetic one (mainly because she is not acting like a serial killer) but despite Dennis’ issues (or maybe because of them) I found myself fascinated by both characters.
It’s not that Black Conflux keeps the audience guessing, because a confrontation between Jackie and Dennis seems inevitable (after all, it’s in the title!). What makes Black Conflux so enjoyable is that it keeps the audience engaged, invested and interested in the journey to the climax. It’s a great debut feature for Dorsey and a great start to my 2019 Toronto International Film Festival viewing.