Walking into my first screening at Sundance this year, I was asked to stop and unbutton my coat, then open my bag for inspection. The doorway into the Library Center Theater, like all the venues at the festival, was plastered with a bold "NO FIREARMS" sign. No matter what your political perspective on the issue may happen to be, it’s undeniable that the United States is in the midst of a horrific stretch of gun violence, one that’s touched every corner and every institution — including schools and movie theaters.
When something this horrific and senseless happens there’s a natural need to understand it; to put it into context and make it part of an ordered universe in which such tragedy can somehow make sense — or at least be understood. As I settled into the screening of Tim Sutton’s new film Dark Night here at the festival, it was clear many were hoping for just that. But although it was loosely inspired by the 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, in which 12 people were killed at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, Sutton’s film doesn’t try to provide answers and it doesn’t claim to know how to stop the problem. What it does is infinitely more challenging, and potentially even more powerful.
I'll admit, I resisted at first
The film opens with an extreme close-up on the face of a young woman that seems to be watching a movie, but as the lights dance and change around her eyes it soon becomes clear she’s watching the flickering red and blue of police lights instead. We get a brief glimpse of the young woman, wearing a tank top emblazoned with the American flag, sitting in a mall parking lot in some sort of aftermath — we don’t know what — and then the movie jumps back in time. Sutton doesn’t use any conventional tools like narration and he doesn’t even bother setting the scene; we simply start gazing upon a number of different characters as they go about their daily lives.
I’ll admit, I resisted at first. I haven’t seen Sutton’s prior film, Memphis, and I was thrown off by his impressionistic approach to the material. Sutton mixes staged documentary interviews for one young man, only to switch to a detached, voyeuristic gaze when following a young woman obsessed with taking selfies. We visit a troubled father and veteran, emotionally cut off from his wife and child, and a young skateboard punk that spends his days cruising through mall parking lots. There’s no narrative to speak of, and there’s nothing specific connecting the characters other than a shared sense of detachment, isolation, and a desire to escape reality.
Paired with that brief opening, and a painfully melancholic score from singer-songwriter Maica Armata, it gives the film a sense of ticking-bomb dread that’s unsettling and hard to shake. Sutton combines these brief glimpses with abstract shots of the sky and landscape, adding to the sense that we’re watching a troubled calm before a violent storm. And that trouble begins to escalate throughout the movie, as Sutton starts focusing on the easy, casual relationship people have with guns. He doesn’t take sides for or against, but given the context, scenes like the troubled vet’s visit to a targeting range takes on enormous weight, his headshot accuracy a terrifying reminder of what potentially could happen.
It doesn't take sides on the political gun battle, but dread is everywhere
He’s one of several different characters that Sutton ends up circling; troubled men that could just be teenagers going through the usual bout of teen angst — or may end up turning into violent monsters. The women we see are equally tragic. By spending quiet moments with them at their most intimate — a young, shy girl working her job at a big box store, or a mom dealing with her child before heading off to work — Sutton slyly helps the audience invest in them, and enhances the dread that they may be struck down when all is said and done. (If anything, Sutton leans a bit too heavily on gender as a binary distinction; all of his troubled characters are men, while all the women are tragic, potential victims.)
Sutton takes us right up to the seconds before a movie theater shooting begins, and that’s when Dark Night stops. I could feel many in the audience turn against the film at that moment; after going through the film’s torturous slow-burn build, they clearly wanted some sort of release — a catharsis. But to think that seeing some sort of stylized depiction of violence would add something is missing the entire point of what Sutton’s trying to do with Dark Night. This isn’t a film that explains why these things happen; it’s an emotional call to action that reminds us of the horror and loss of these events — events that continue with alarming frequency. It’s a cinematic living document that lets us remember the enormity of human loss in places like Aurora, Columbine, and Newtown — long after the political rhetoric and cable news outrage has died down. It’s difficult, almost punishing to watch — and that’s precisely the point.