Reality Without a Bat Signal: "Dark Night" chills and provokes

Dark Night (2017) 
85 min., not rated.

A stripped-down, free-floating mood piece, “Dark Night” provokes and taps into the state of our American culture where gun violence has unfortunately become the norm. The title is evocative of the 2012 mass shooting at a cineplex screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado, and exists in a non-movie world where coverage of the real-life shooter’s trial flashes on TV sets, but much of the film is centered on the prelude of a comparable tragedy. Like the strangers in the film, we go on with our everyday lives, never sure of our fates but hanging on to a strand of hope that safety is still ensured in a public place. Written and directed by Tim Sutton (2013’s “Memphis”), the film shares a similarly observant, unforced style and experimental technique as Gus Van Sant’s masterfully hypnotic Columbine-inspired “Elephant.” It packs less of a punch than that 2003 spellbinder, but based on the merits of Sutton’s own languid filmic language, “Dark Night” finds a muted yet chilling poignancy in the mundane.

Like a “six degrees of separation” character mosaic, the film observes the daily lives of strangers from different walks of life before a tragedy ultimately binds them on a summer night in Sarasota, Florida. Slouched back sitting on the couch next to his mother, a dispassionate incoming college freshman, whose only friend is online, is interviewed by a camera crew for reasons unknown. An aspiring actress (Anna Rose Hopkins) obsesses over body image and taking selfies. A war veteran and family man attends a meeting for PTSD and then later a gun range, while his wife goes to work as a nurse. Rebellious teenagers spend the day skateboarding at a park, getting high, playing first-person shooter games and dying their hair. A teenage Latina goes to work at a bulk superstore and gets invited to swim at the lake afterwards. And then there is a shaggy-haired young man (a piercingly eyed Robert Jumper) driving around when he’s not planning his steps from his car in the mall parking lot.

Writer-director Tim Sutton is well aware that many could accuse his film of being distasteful or exploitative or even overly simplified, so he responsibly refuses to provide answers when there are none for senseless acts of violence. There are the implications of mental illness, media consumption, and the idea that violence breeds violence, but Sutton holds true to his neutral stance without making his film a pedantic statement and encouraging his audience to draw their own conclusions. Holding a more moderate point-of-view is actually preferable on film, particularly when the film tackles an event as tough and unthinkable as a mass shooting. One could make the case that the unnamed people on screen are little more than types, albeit people we have probably all met or have seen at one point in our own lives, but that also seems to be more of a creative choice than lazy filmmaking on Sutton's part. The fact that none of the unknown actors seem to be "acting" also gives the film an uncanny sense of verisimilitude. 

Bleakly poetic in tone and artfully minimalist in form, “Dark Night” is about a vivid feeling and mood; it is more of a tone poem than a film retrofitted to justify a sensationalistic tragedy. Hélène Louvart’s (2011’s “Pina”) cinematography is devastatingly beautiful and the vocal stylings of French-Canadian artist Maic Armata are peppered throughout, including a haunting slowed-down cover of “You Are My Sunshine.” Once all of the characters that we have observed are gathered into a theater to see a movie, the viewer’s nerves go on high alert, and still, filmmaker Sutton handles this last section tastefully without actually staging a massacre, while achieving a cumulative power. Bound to be misunderstood, “Dark Night” opens itself to the conversation and should not be ignored.