Perpetually torn between its philosophical ambitions and horror-film roots, Daylight suffers from a debilitating identity crisis. Director David Barker’s minimalist setup echoes I Spit on Your Grave as pregnant Irene (Alexandra Meierhans) and her self-doubting husband, Daniel (Aidan Redmond), drive into the countryside on their way to a wedding, every gust of wind and sway of a tree an evocation of an unseen menace. When the couple is carjacked by Renny (Michael Godere), a seemingly innocuous hitchhiker, the sudden appearance of a switchblade around Irene’s neck makes for a tonal shift that’s especially vital. A bad situation grows exponentially worse when Daniel is forced to pick up Leo (Ivan Martin), Renny’s equally sleazy accomplice.
The foursome end up at a disarmingly quiet farmhouse, and Barker builds tension to an even greater extent by illuminating the power of off-screen sound. Irene and Daniel hear bits and pieces of the criminal’s conversations, clues to their own certain demise. There’s even a brilliantly placed cutaway of dried blood splatter covering the floral wallpaper in the kitchen. Without the crutch of dialogue, Barker establishes Renny and Leo as lethal archetypes, defined by action instead of smarmy prose. When Renny takes Daniel down to a riverbank, puts a nap sack over his head, and casually confesses, “I’m going to slit your throat now,” Daylight reaches an apex of terror that it never quite tops. Renny’s matter-of-fact delivery is a striking example of evil in the small details of character.
Unfortunately, Barker segues from this brilliantly restrained scene to a more convoluted narrative trajectory, sending Daniel and a third kidnapper away to collect a ransom from his rich father-in-law. Left to wait and ponder their fates, Leo, Renny, and Irene form a spiritual triangle of warring ideologies. At this juncture, Daylight grows increasingly self-aware and problematic. We get flashbacks to Irene’s therapy sessions, arguments with Daniel, and posh dinner parties. Hers is a crisis of faith, both in regard to her marriage and motherhood, and this experience creates a vacuum for religious faith to swell. Renny and Leo start to see Irene as more of a saint than a hostage, and their own characterizations become more self-reflective and doubt-riddled. The horror-film narrative, so diabolical in specific scenes toward the beginning, is overwhelmed by long-winded and increasingly stale monologues about faith.
If Barker’s potent audible references and visual compositions occasionally mirror the best the horror genre has to offer, his actors’ terribly uneven performances can’t transcend the more familiar narrative revelations. Leo’s bursts of sexual aggression, Renny’s unsettled brutality, and Irene’s deadpan manipulation all feel forced, never working in unison during the most intense scenes. Interestingly, Barker ends with a stunning moment of violence that suddenly cuts this talky approach short, a small coup de grace for a film brimming with wasted potential. The reality of blood spilling onto the floor makes all the musings about God and regret seem terribly inconsequential.
Flashes of genre deconstruction make it clear that Daylight wants to be a subversive take on the home-invasion film, inverting the scenarios in ways that will reveal more about the characters’ complex motivations. However, by the time Irene becomes an avenging angel, the Shakespearean character traits have simply formed a series of smoke and mirrors to mask elements of familiar screenwriting. Barker tries to stretch the complex cautionary tale to a necessary feature length, but at a mere 75 minutes, Daylight lacks the cinematic endurance to convincingly register as either.