Directed by Tim Sutton
Opens February 3 at the Alamo Drafthouse
A contemporary look at the disaffection and desensitization that have long been native to American suburbia, the unsettling independent film Dark Night describes a world of vast parking lots, manicured lawns, and latent violence. The third feature by Brooklyn-based writer-director Tim Sutton, which premiered last year in the low-budget NEXT sidebar of Sundance, imagines a sort of alternate-history version of the movie-theater massacre that took place in Aurora, Colorado, in the summer of 2012. Emphasizing the theme of alienation, the film weaves together a number of parallel narratives, following several residents of sunny Sarasota, most of them at the tail end of adolescence, in the days before they find themselves at a fateful showing at the local multiplex.
If you’re reminded of Gus Van Sant’s Columbine-inspired Elephant, Sutton appears to have been mindful of that middle panel of the “Death Trilogy” too—when she’s not abstracting the action with off-kilter close-ups, French cinematographer Hélène Louvart (Pina) instills the new film with an observational fluidity that harks back to the older one; likewise, the melancholy calm of the songs on the soundtrack, by Maica Armata, belies the impending bloodshed. As in his promising previous films, Pavilion (2012) and Memphis (2013), Sutton here employs nonactors in what amounts to a study of how physical behavior betrays various forms of bottled-up psychological disquiet. A vet (Eddie Cacciola) cleans his guns; a struggling actress (Anna Rose Hopkins) spends most of her time posing for selfies; and an obscurely enraged young man (Robert Jumper, whose sea-foam eyes are the film’s single most haunting special effect) methodically prepares for the brutal assault on his peers.
A good portion of this 85-minute movie slips by before the viewer can properly disentangle these narrative strands from one another. For one thing, the docudrama’s restless form is rather hard to get a handle on: A video-game enthusiast (Aaron Purvis) is the only character here to be interviewed doc-style, while a brief sequence cedes the screen to a street-view navigation. It also takes some time to determine the film’s precise orientation to the Aurora events themselves—like real-life Aurora shooter James Holmes, a tight-lipped skateboarder (Andres Vega) dyes his hair orange, but Holmes is also referred to more directly, earlier in the film, when a girl and her mother (Rosie Rodriguez and Karina Macias) watch a news report about his trial. For most of its duration, Dark Night somehow winds up feeling both miscellaneous and diffuse, but its final sequence—in which this art-house film ventures into the space of the doomed multiplex, and reflects on the desire for collective rapture and the reckoning with private sorrows that we all inevitably bring with us when we go to the movies—goes a long way toward tying up what had seemed like loose ends. For the survivors, this commons will soon be a casualty itself—and the patterns of isolation we’ve been privy to here will only worsen.