The first four images of Dark Night, Tim Sutton’s contemplation of civilian gun violence in America, have a fragmentary precision that’s gutting. First, a girl’s eye is studied in close-up as red and blue light—seemingly the incandescence of either a movie screen or fireworks—flashes over it. Then, streaks of refracted red light blink rhythmically across the top of a dark frame, forcing us to reconsider the source of the initial glow as potentially that of a police siren, followed by a shot of a larger red smear, underneath which a distant American flag slowly waves. This sequence is capped off by a wider angle of the girl, who’s sullenly slumped on some grass at the side of a road as the unfocused legs of onlookers bob in the background and ambulance sirens creep into the otherwise hushed soundscape.
National tragedies are touchy podiums for artistic license, so it’s rare to encounter a work that flexes its creativity responsibly. But on its own terms, this concise fill-in-the-blanks opening strikes the right balance of mining an audience’s collective emotional trauma without abusing it. But that’s not something that can be said of Dark Night in its entirety, even as it maintains the same oblique aesthetic established in its preamble.
Part of what makes the film, inspired by the 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colorado at a movie theater playing Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, a queasy experience is its structure, which becomes apparent shortly after the opening credits. If the introductory shots evoke aftermath, the following scenes are clearly the stuff of suburban life prior to cataclysm, and thus the film’s plot is reverse-engineered to crescendo back to that initial devastation. Even certain formal decisions, such as Sutton’s liberal sprinkling of Elephant-inspired skyline shots throughout the film to chart day’s gradual turn into night, enhance the callous march-to-death quality of the narrative.
Dark Night’s other dubious move is to oversell the associations between its governing fictional conceit—a Florida “copycat shooting” of the sort that media cautioned against, and therefore elevated the alert for, in the immediate wake of the Aurora massacre—and James Holmes’s actual killing spree, a news broadcast of which is briefly visible and then heard off screen in a cookie-cutter suburban home. The film’s eventual (implied) shooting occurs in a supermall multiplex much like the one that played host to Holmes’s scheme, and there’s even a minor character (ultimately just there to stoke the audience’s suspicion) who’s shown dying his hair the same shade of orange that the mass murderer sported. If Sutton’s intention with these nudges is to plant the idea that these civilian rampages tend to emerge from comparable circumstances, it’s an indelicate maneuver that has the adverse effect of robbing the film of some of the specificity it might have developed.
Conceptual missteps aside, however, the film is free of smug sermonizing. By juggling the disparate paths of soon-to-be victims, mostly teenaged, as they go about their final days, Sutton seeks to broach from all angles the vexing quandaries presented by America’s gun lust, as well as the possible driving forces that would motivate someone to unload on his or her fellow civilians. Image-based culture, and the vanity it breeds, is one of these potential toxins: We’re occasionally privy to one girl’s obsessive selfie-manufacturing in front of her bathroom mirror, which Sutton shoots with a fixed camera as though recording an audition. Another is the heightened immediacy of Internet access, which encourages one to overlook the distinction between reality and audiovisual data. This thread yields Sutton’s most arresting cut—from a shot of a character exiting the front door of his home to a Google map view of a similar-looking house seen at exactly the perspective we’d expect from a match cut revealing the same character continuing outside.
Dark Night often surprises on such micro levels even as its broader execution gives reason for pause. One of its more intriguing mini-narratives involves the fissured relationship between a mother and her son, which comes into focus through a series of Q&A sessions moderated, presumably, by an off-screen Sutton. The troubled boy can’t give straight answers, while the mother resorts to generic, clearly out-of-touch endorsements of his talents, a sign that the orderliness of quiet residential Florida doesn’t necessarily facilitate human closeness. This theme is expressed visually in a recurring tracking shot of two skateboarders whose heads bob in and out of the frame one after the other, suggesting that even when people are together, they’re separated.
Such distance is built into the film’s reserved telephoto aesthetic, so it’s curious when Sutton resorts to finer points. Certain didactic shock cuts, like one that juxtaposes the screen of a first-person shooter game with the point-blank sight of an actual machine gun being cocked, puncture the air of ambivalence, while the languid rhythms are periodically interrupted by crude horror-movie fake-outs, such as a bit involving a pack of schoolgirls suddenly screaming bloody murder just out of view of a forward-creeping camera.
Ultimately, Dark Night starts to feel like a grab bag of ideas and imitations (the Elephant lifts keep coming, by the way), which would be of perfectly reasonable interest were it not for the nagging and superfluous reminders of the impending doom just around the corner. By the time the film enters the movie theater in its home stretch to observe the humdrum final moments of the imminent shootout’s unknowing targets, it feels perilously dragged out and far from the concision with which it began.