Sam Shepard has a lengthy career as a playwright, actor, and director, but his fifty-year plus friendship with the more hermetic writer and deli-clerk Johnny Dark maybe a better factor that defines his life. Their relationship is chronicled in hundreds of hand-written correspondence while Shepard enjoyed a career up and down the entertainment industry and Dark lived modestly in suburbia. Despite the disparity in experiences, Shepard & Dark recounts their divergent paths in life, their convergence at the most pivotal moments in their lives, and the hundreds of letters they sent to each other.

After a performance of Shepard’s play in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, Dark asked what drugs Shepard was using. They would eventually become roommates, marry into the same family, and would remain friends for decades by writing hundreds if not thousands of hand-written correspondence letters. Today, Dark is an amateur archivist and now writes prose on an antiquated computer in his humble home, surrounded by his dogs, and inspired by a cannabis habit. He admittedly enjoys being a homebody except for walks around his neighborhood and his early-morning shifts at the deli-counter at a small supermarket.

Shepard on the other hand has become a man of the world, adding his name to the credits of books, films, television shows, and was a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. He writes on a typewriter, trumping Dark’s own antiquated tool. He has married, divorced, had children, and works tirelessly to reject everything his father was. Currently, he works at a think tank for a science foundation in Santa Fe, and unlike Dark, he entrusts his personal archives to Texas State University.

The two have been brought back together by combining their letters to be published to chronicle their decade’s long relationship. Rather than fixate on the book or even Shepard’s career, Shepard & Dark instead focuses on the relationship between the two even though their personalities seem night and day. As they recite their letters, it is clear these two were constantly fighting their own existential questions as their correspondence was always more introspective and reflexive than merely gossip and catching up.

Where Shepard chose to leave his wife and son for another woman, Dark had a different change in his life. An artery has burst in his wife’s brain and even with brain surgery and rehabilitation, Dark would eventually become a widower. There is a contrast to the Dark that danced with his wife and provided advanced care during her convalesce and the Dark that shaves in the bath and smokes weed while he writes. Compared to Shepard, Dark appears to be more technically savvy, but savvy he is not. His first experience with a flat-screen television, the “reality television” it projects, as well as his befuddlement of a USB stick is comical, revealing, and shows an innocence still not lost on a man comfortable with his late sixties.

Shepard & Dark reveals a relationship between two men that seems unbreakable though their paths were incredibly divergent, and even if they seem to get on each other’s nerves when they spend a few days together working on the book. The film does not focus on Shepard’s iconic career, but spends equal time on their upbringing and state of mind. Perhaps that is what the documentary really wanted to portray: that this lengthy friendship is genuine and without petty bullshit, just like this documentary.

Shepard & Dark