In silent, extreme close-up, we see a face. The expression is rapt, the makeup-caked eyes wide and unblinking. Light flickers, bouncing off her visage in rapid fire, and we get the sense that she’s surrounded by darkness. Just when we’re oriented—this must be a movie theater—the light abruptly switches to blue long enough for us to take note, then a deep, blood red. As those colors alternate at an increasing pace, the image becomes more threatening. And if anyone hasn’t understood the conflation, the soundtrack provides the distant wail of a police siren.
That’s the opening image of Dark Night—a foreshadowing as macabre as the title. Ostensibly a dramatization of the Aurora, Colorado mass shooting where 12 people lost their lives during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, Dark Night is closer in spirit to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant than Peter Berg’s headlines-ripped recreations.
But unlike Van Sant, director Tim Sutton isn’t much interested in characterization. The movie plays out as a series of vignettes from the perspective of a largely static camera. We never see the shooting, and immediately after that first shot, the frame shifts to a day-lit, god’s-eye view of a suburban development. A home is chosen arbitrarily, and we hear news coverage of the events in Aurora. Whether the movie is wrapping back to the beginning or starting fresh in an new town primed for a new tragedy is left ambiguous. The landscape suggests Florida instead of Colorado, but the perpetrator wears the same self-consciously bugged-out hairdo as James Holmes. Really, the logistics doesn’t matter; the movie’s case is clear: this stuff happens often and everywhere.
As the day wears on, the movie introduces a half-dozen characters, all potential victims, as they move about a sleepy suburb in solipsistic isolation. Their routines are mundane; they run errands, play video games, and take selfies. One man tends to his firearm collection, another rehearses something far more sinister, and the whole thing is punctuated with jump-scare shrieks and false alarms that deepen the sense of lurking dread.
Sutton, a clear devotee of post-Harmony Korine riffs on working-class naturalism like George Washington, imbues Dark Night with an elliptical, dreamy grime and a reflex for semi-improvisational acting that makes for easy poetry. The approach simultaneously deflates narrative inevitability and sleazy exploitation, and it might also drain the movie of vitality if it weren’t for Sutton’s extraordinary eye. Under his direction, the movie becomes an at-times stunning study in texture and symmetry.
The ubiquity of guns, reports of mass shootings, and broken homes—not to mention characters fixated on smartphones and their own image—suggests something like a thesis. But a documentary crew’s glib interviews with an at-risk teen that occasionally interrupt the narrative also seem to implicate our haphazard framework for contextualizing these kinds of atrocities. Alongside the pseudo-realist aesthetic, Dark Night’s drifting comes into focus: understanding, it seems to say, is an illusion.
But that distanced posture grates in the face of such inflammable material. As night falls and our characters head toward their destination and doom, Dark Night remains as frustratingly out of reach any anything like a solution. And on those terms—as an artful examination of American hopelessness—it’s a noble failure, as vapid and intently impenetrable as its subjects. But as a piece of cinematic abstraction, Dark Night remains hypnotically eye-popping film art.
Dark Night. Written and directed by Tim Sutton. Starring Robert Jumper, Anna Rose Hopkins, and Aaron Purvis. Opens in Kansas City February 17, 2017.