Dark Night aspires to be a thought-provoking experience. For its entirety, the film indulges in snapshots of a desolate suburban existence where its subjects are observed in various mundane activities, director Tim Sutton framing them as the denizens of a wasteland of malls, skateparks, superstores and little, if any, ambition. They perform commonplace activities without expression: a boy playing with a pet snake in his bedroom; an aspiring actress taking selfies in her bathroom; a teen girl and older woman silently watching TV—one that not coincidentally is showing a news clip about James Holmes, the culprit in the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shootings in 2012, an event that serves as the inspiration for this meditation on isolation, detachment and the potential ramifications of both.
Sutton shot the film in Florida using a cast of mostly non-actors, and the spell he casts with their assistance is potent. With few exceptions, they’re wrought as emotionless to the point of seeming removed from themselves. Even a compliment passed between friends suggests aliens trying out their human bodies and language for the first time. These aren’t characters so much as stand-ins for a feeling, an ennui that seems destined to resolve itself in violence. A young man with piercing blue eyes will walk between yards with his rifle as if on patrol and poised to shoot. Another raises a hammer and we sense imminent death. We watch as a young skateboarder’s hair is being dyed orange, a callback to Holmes’ infamous mugshot. In these figures we apprehend their loneliness, frustration and unease—these war vets who don’t know how to relate to their families, these gamers who escape into first-person shooters or this young man with blue eyes walking his dog and casually setting it free.
But rather than stimulate empathy, the nature of these people and the view we’re afforded—slowly gliding above the identical roofs of neighborhood homes, or tracking next to someone as they walk—keeps everyone at a remove. With the exception of segments wherein a mother and teenage son address the camera (and an unseen interviewer), the audience is an unnoticed observer. That intimation of cavernous spaces between people, of chasms devoid of human connection, is compounded by the occasional emergence of spare, echo-laden songs by Canadian artist Maica Armata. The result is something like watching elements of a nightmare slowly unfold before our eyes. This is suburbia as hell on Earth, and while it isn’t an original conception, the surreal quality of Dark Night is at least intriguing and admirable for the artistic focus that led to its rendering.
We watch people who are suffering or in need of direction or are mentally ill. Common to them all is a sense of oppressive space, of emptiness—of hopelessness, given expression in one of the movie’s few lines of dialogue: “Humans think they’re real, but it’s a bunch of bullshit.” Eventually they’ll all converge at a mall’s theater, each in their own boxes of solitude to watch a film called Dark Night—a callback to the screening of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the film showing when Holmes struck. And eventually something horrible—an act not dramatized by Sutton, but pointedly suggested—will beget the flashing of a police cruiser’s emergency lights reflecting in woman’s eyes. Sutton may have been nudging us all along to see there is little distance, however measured, between killer and victims; regardless of who pulls the trigger, they all share the same destiny. There’s a chill to this idea of damaged individuals moving invisibly among us. It might have resonated more convincingly if its presentation weren’t also cold and clinical.
Depending on your willingness to give yourself over to these pretensions, the film can be either hypnotic or tedious. This cold, clinical approach might work intellectually, but instinctually it has us feel like unwilling voyeurs, forced to watch private moments. Whether we’re privy to a woman bent at the waist stretching, someone taking a picture of their healthy blender concoction to post to social media, a woman petting her cat or even some lost soul staring blankly ahead of them—it all has the veneer of the grotesque. Which may be the point, but it’s nevertheless unsettling, the idea of such damaged individuals moving invisibly among us.
Director: Tim Sutton
Writer: Tim Sutton
Starring: Ciara Hampton, Robert Jumper, Aaron Purvis, Anna Rose, Eddie Cacciola, Marilyn Purvis
Release Date: February 3, 2017