The opening shot of Tim Sutton’s Dark Night, coming after almost a minute of music playing over a black screen, is a beautiful yet unceremoniously conventional shot. It is the reflexive kino eye shot, showing the awareness of artifice and mediation within a filmic representation.
Gorgeous red and blue neon washes over the eye of an onlooker. We can see the approaching police car in her pupil. It is tragedy in a snapshot; fundamentally artistic even if the eyeball shot has appeared everywhere from Un Chien Andalou to LOST.
Dark Night chronicles the lives of those affected by the 2012 Aurora shooting that took place in a Colorado screening of the film The Dark Knight Rises. The film is proposed as a dramatized documentary—a mockumentary, if that term felt appropriate in this context, which it does not. The camera looks in, fly on the wall, to various characters’ lives, often depicting the ambient noise found in the absence of dialogue. Suburbia muted. Terror in the absence of words.
Indeed, the first jarring sonic element comes in the form of snapping reporter cameras, themselves an illusion, clapping like gunshots. And this is no earlier than 15 minutes into this 85-minute film.
The documentary aesthetic and presentation of Dark Night is both its strongest point of unease and its fatal flaw. The perverse illustration of reality within fiction posing as reality is as uncomfortable as need be to place the viewer within the trauma that will inevitably inflict the town, as well as jarring enough to limit the overall dramatic effect of the film, a dramatic effect that lies in the sympathy toward the real-life victims.
From a cinematic front, the shot design does wonders. The visual distance mimics the viewer’s physical distance while also producing intimacy through privileged access. Acting ceases to be a factor, as the film’s first half is mainly dictated by a lack of action, a lack of dialogue.
Dark Night is boldly ambiguous. Other recent real-life depictions of tragedies, as in Patriots Day, are black and white: the American heroes prevail over terror. This depiction is not necessarily wrong—American cinema can benefit by presenting unifying pieces—but these monochrome depictions are far less challenging than they could be.
Dark Night is about a universal (at least the film proposes it as universal) ostracization. American suburbia is shown as held in tyranny by loneliness. The number of shots where more than one character are shown together in frame feels fleeting. Each shot is isolating in its own way. Each character is seemingly plagued by solo framing.
Helene Louvart makes a morsel out of this bleak narrative. These complicated themes of isolation vis a vis tragedy are satisfied through her talents and Tim Sutton’s eye for a deliberate pacing that still feels ready to burst into a rapidity at any given moment.
Dark Night is not spotless—the title itself is a macabre pun that feels unwarranted. By remaining quiet, the film avoids a deeper engagement with the nature of violent crime. The film is more of a meditation, not allowing space for an exploration of terror and its after effects.
If nothing else, the breathtaking original music is worth the price of admission. Haunting and complementary to the pace of the film, it flits around with a meditative ambience.
With Dark Night, Tim Sutton has earned mainstream attention. We need more films that challenge the normal perspective, both through the lens and through deliberate narrative construction. The film may leave out the most challenging part, the ultimate question and the pivotal event, but it does so for the sake of a non-exploitative, non-sensational framing of mass shooting not as a means of politicization but as a means of introspection.
Dark Night: B+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)