Nature has a way of guiding us through our lives in surprising ways. In The Dark Divide, director Tom Putnam tells the story of world-renowned butterfly expert Robert Pyle and his journey through grief and discovery.
Robert (David Cross) is a dedicated husband to Thea (Debra Messing), his ailing wife. When she loses her battle to cancer, he honors her by going on an expedition to find a rare butterfly in the wilderness of Washington’s Gifford Pinchot’s National Forest. He has never camped before, let alone gone on a 30-day expedition, but a grant received from the Guggenheim spurs him on to finish what he started.
Deep in the forest, he must deal with dirt bikers, bears, deforestation, and Bigfoot’s legend. He must also confront with the crippling loss of his life partner. By immersing himself in nature he hopes to heal his grieving heart.
The Dark Divide was adapted from Pyle’s 1995 book, Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide, where he documents his quest for legends of Bigfoot and notes life in the wilderness. The film is shot in the actual locations Pyle studied, with live butterflies on set as well. Putnam’s film doesn’t focus on Bigfoot as much as the book, bringing the nature expert’s grief to the forefront as he tries to carry on without his illustrator wife with whom he worked.
Comedians often access emotions well and Cross is impressive in this role. His portrayal is as human as it gets, with a beauty in his sadness. His befuddled navigation through the vast forest is endearing as his path eventually becomes clearer as his journey progresses. Nature comforts him and pushes him at the same time, making survival the one thing that helps him cope. Some funny moments in The Dark Divide make you cringe and others leave you breathless, especially when Robert puts himself in danger. Cross’ performance is also accentuated by Messing’s wonderful turn as the ailing Thea. Their chemistry, and his memories of their time together, lead to some of the more poignant moments in the film.
Putnam combined several of Pyle’s books to write the script for The Dark Divide, and with Pyle’s help, they came up with something that gives you the gist of Pyle’s experience as a husband, a butterfly expert, and a creature sharing this planet with nature. Viewers will be immersed in the lush wilderness in all its glory, and the unknown perils that sit just beyond the trees. The message of coming out the other side of grief is paired with environmental conservation and the damage we humans are doing to nature. The film also sheds light on livelihoods made off of the land and the preservation of the forest’s Indigenous areas. Putnam structures the narrative in a way that ensures one considers both sides of a very heated argument.
Pyle wanted this film to be a document to help protect the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, which is currently an unprotected area. What it also does is make the viewer yearn for healing and hope from the wonder of nature.