Dark Night (2016)
Written & Directed by Tim Sutton
On July 20th, 2012, during a midnight screen of The Dark Knight Returns, a man wearing tactical gear set off tear gas inside the theater and proceeded to fire into the audience using multiple firearms he’d prepared for this occasion. 12 people were dead, 58 were wounded in the shooting. What followed was another cycle of the gun/mental health debate in America, which ended, as always, with nothing done on either front by leaders who feared political reprisal if they were to act. It was another reminder that we live in a society where the average and considered politically safest response of an elected official in the wake of mass murder is to do nothing.
Filmmaker Tim Sutton decided to make a film not about the moment of explosive violence but with a focus on the quiet spaces that act as the prelude to the tragedy. The camera is a dispassionate observer, following and chronicling, never commenting. There’s a young woman fixated on her physical appearance, taking Instagram shots while pursuing fitness modeling. A group of adolescent skaters mill about local parks, aimless and wandering. A veteran of the current war on terror sits awkwardly in an apartment living room watching his son play, struggling to forge a connection.
The film is as much poetic as it is an exercise in dread. Early on, we can quickly figure who the shooter will be, watching him stomp through his front yard, carrying a semi-automatic rifle. But he isn’t the only one with a gun. The vet finds solace at a shooting range. Toy guns are wielded in the lobby of the movie theater as the skaters play in the arcade. Gun violence is always on the periphery. A news report showing the face of the Aurora theater shooter is on in the background. As one character drives through a concrete strip mall wasteland, a news report comes over the radio about a mass shooting in Mississippi. It’s always unclear if the characters are paying attention to this, their faces neutral, and eyes lost somewhere on the horizon.
I was reminded of Gus Van Sant’s work on Elephant and Last Days, both films that recreate a version of the hours and days leading up to an outburst of deadly violence. I don’t think Sutton has as deft a hand as Van Sant’s, but he does create some visually arresting images that linger with the viewer. There’s a moment where two women are playing “You Are My Sunshine” on their guitars and, unseen by them, the future killer slowly pushes the barrel of his gun through an open window at them. He eventually gets cold feet and retreats back to his house, and the women are completely unaware.
The biggest problem with Dark Night is that its narrative is so emotionally disconnected from the characters that its passivity becomes a liability. It gets challenging to care for many of the characters because Sutton insists on keeping a distance. I can’t really say I know any of these people as a result of not being allowed to. Perhaps, that is part of the purpose behind this aesthetic choice? Maybe, but it left me frustrated and unable to have an emotional reaction to the film’s quiet conclusion.
This was an interesting film to watch the weekend Joker hit theaters. Joker was the first movie I actually contemplated skipping the opening weekend of this picture due to the potential for gun violence in the theater. It deeply upset me that we’ve come to this point in America where I have to think about what movies I will go to see and at what time of day to best avoid a mentally ill person with access to high powered firearms coming into my theater and killing me. I’m also a public elementary school teacher, and lockdown drills are now a regular part of the curriculum, preparing small children for their lives to possibly be cut short by ill-intentioned people who can easily purchase weapons of war to use on them. Yes, statistically, these things will never happen to me, I suppose. But, now they are a thing that has to be present in my mind during my week when I go to work and my weekends when I want to get out of the house and see a new film. There’s something very, very wrong that we’re so easily adapting to everyday horrors.