The first shot of Tim Sutton’s Dark Night is genius. We see a silent close-up of a woman’s eyes, smears of primary colored light flashing over them. It’s natural to assume she’s our reflection; a cinemagoer drinking in the big screen luminescence. Gradually, the sounds of sirens fade in and the light playing over the woman’s face is contextualized as the metronomic flash of emergency response vehicles. The camera pulls out to show an unfocused fuzz of activity around a traumatized woman. Mundanity has flipped into atrocity.
The root of the film is the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado during a screening of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. But Sutton isn’t specifically dramatizing that massacre (we see the news footage of the trial of Aurora shooter James Holmes in the background of a scene, leaving this as an imagined copycat killing), but rather spreading out the puzzle pieces and experimenting with their connections.
These elements range from FPS video games, hair being dyed a lurid orange, a Batman mask, guns being meticulously cleaned, the interior lobby of a cinema (complete with light gun arcade machines), preternaturally widened eyes and what’s either blood or ink spilling over fingers (among many others). These pieces are overlaid onto an intensely geometric environment: overhead shots of a fractal suburban housing complex, horizontal tracking shots that follow steel railings, modernist apartment buildings that trap residents in a grid of beams, and mirrored walls that stretch off into infinity.
The effect is a languid distance from what we’re watching, Sutton refusing to allow us to become emotionally involved with his characters. Even calling them characters is a bit of a stretch, as they’re all unnamed and spend their time on screen going about their exceedingly unremarkable daily business. We’re only granted a couple of insights into their internal processes: a woman poses for endless selfies and works out until she bursts into tears, a sullen teenager and his mother are interrogated about his talents and a PTSD-afflicted war veteran suffers an emotional breakdown.
Sutton is so impossibly distant from his subjects that it feels as if he’s peering at them through the Hubble Space Telescope. Though the film never explicitly spells it out, we sense that all but one of them will end up future victims of a mass shooter (the remaining one will be the shooter). This gives Dark Night a nihilistic dread, showing that these folks’ transitory joys, miseries, and problems amount to nothing against the clack clack clack of gunfire.
Thing is, Sutton goes to such lengths to convey the crushing mundanity of modern life that his film eventually transitions from meditative to just plain inert. For example, I think I understand why he’s forcing us to stare at a long, static shot of a street light, but that doesn’t make it any more interesting to actually watch.
It leaves Dark Night teetering right on the edge between valid stylistic experimentation and pretentious artybollocks. For every genuinely interesting moment like two women playing guitar not noticing the barrel of a gun creeping through the open window behind them, there’s a painfully extended sequence of someone scrolling through Google Street View. Worse, a decent portion of the film is given over to following two skaters as they meander around in slow motion and pull tricks in a skatepark – but as far as I could tell they have nothing to do with the climactic massacre. Surely they can’t just be there as orange-haired red herrings?
My frustration with this indie gimcrackery gradually increased as what initially seemed like objective distance from the characters morphed into a superiority to them. It’s difficult to pin down exactly where this happens, but somewhere between the screen-filling shot of a woman’s lycra-clad butt and a teen mumbling pseudo-intellectual adolescent philosophy – “the environment is not a person… nature is real, uh, human beings are not real” – the film quietly begins to behave as if these people need to be traumatized or killed by a mad gunman, if only to shock them out of the complacency of their suburban lives.
There’s a quite a bit to admire in Dark Night, but the actual experience of watching it left me cold. By the end I was wistfully remembering Gus van Sant’s far superior Elephant, which covers the same territory in the same style, but packs way more of a punch. It makes this film feel like an inferior cover version.
Dark Night is rigorously framed and edited, but it offers the illusion of complexity rather than the real McCoy.