Dark Night * ½ / *****
Directed by: Tim Sutton.
Written by: Tim Sutton.
Starring: Eddie Cacciola (Veteran), Anna Rose Hopkins (Summer), Robert Jumper (Jumper), Aaron Purvis (Aaron), Kirk S. Wildasin Iii (Little boy).
Back in June, when I did my list of the 25 best films of the 21st Century so far (inspired, like so many, by the New York Times doing the same thing) one of the films I listed was Gus Van Sant’s Elephant – which was his film about a school shooting not unlike Columbine. Made just 4 years after Columbine – at a time where it seemed like every week brought another school shooting (it doesn’t seem to have stopped, as much as morphed – it’s no longer just schools that are the targets of these mass shooting events) Van Sant’s film offers no reasons, no explanations, no comfort to the audience. He depicts a day at a high school, like it was any other day, except that the end of the film has two boys storm the school and kill many of their classmates. The film was controversial at the time for many reasons – one of them was the style of the film – which was basically made up of long, flat, tracking shots – made the events look calm or even beautiful, and Van Sant did nothing different for the normal scenes as he did the shooting scenes. That was, of course, part of his point – and even though Van Sant does depict the violence, it’s impossible to argue he glamorizes it. The violence has no sense of cathartic release, or even visceral power. It’s drained of that. Director Tim Sutton says he was heavily inspired by Van Sant’s Elephant when making his film, Dark Night, which is his take on the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting. His film is more stylized than Van Sant’s – and as an example of film craft, the movie is quietly remarkable. And yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling throughout the film that Sutton is guilty of many of the things that Van Sant was accused of, but I didn’t think he did. Dark Night felt more exploitive and judgmental than Elephant did – and also feels like a film that Sutton is congratulating himself for making as he’s making it. The whole thing rang hollow to me.
The style of the film is somewhat confusing. It is going for a vérité quality in most of its scenes – although there are moments that resemble a more traditional documentary – as the filmmakers are interviewing their subjects (why they are interviewing them is never answered) – and there is even a fantasy sequence at one point. Mostly though, the film follows its characters, who are mostly leading quiet, lonely, melancholy existences – isolated, or self-isolated, from those around them. Unlike Elephant, which never tried to hide the identities of the would-be shooters, Dark Night doesn’t tell you until the end – and actively tries to misdirect your suspicion throughout the movie. Will the lonely teenage artist – who has given up his passion, and answers questions with as few words as possible snap, and kill people? What about the guy who dies his hair orange – much like the shooter in Aurora (who we see on TV) be the one who snaps? Or the army veteran, who has trouble getting his life back together, and spends time cleaning his guns? Eventually, it will become clear who the shooter is (Spoiler alert – it’s none of them, but another lonely soul). The film follows them all – as well as a fitness obsessed young woman with a YouTube channel (I think that’s what she’s filming for) – and some younger teenagers just being teenagers.
Honestly, more than anything else, it was this approach that bothered me – this guessing game the Sutton is forcing the audience to play to figure out who’s going to live and die. It felt exploitive. Worse, because they are all living what amounts to similar, lonely, isolated, depressing lives, Sutton seems to be implying that all his characters – and perhaps everyone – all live in the same spectrum, all just waiting to snap and kill people. That feels like a rather glib observation – and, frankly, an offensive one. The ending of the movie doesn’t bother to show the violence – just the moment’s right before it’s going to happen – and it felt to me like Sutton wants to be congratulated for his restraint here. But it feels cheap.
Sutton’s talent is undeniable. The film is impeccably crafted, with great visuals and sound design. He has talent – and many who saw his last film, Memphis (which I have not) loved it. Yet, in Dark Night all that talent is at the service of a glib, superficial take on an important issue in American society, Van Sant’s film didn’t offer answers or easily platitudes – it made you uncomfortable, but forced you to watch – and 14 years later, it still haunts me. Dark Night angered me – and not in the way the film intends.