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Sundance 2016: Dark Night Explores a Day in the Life of America’s Death

By  · Published on January 28th, 2016

Dark Night Explores a Day in the Life of America’s Death

Sundance 2016

Follow all of our Sundance 2016 coverage.

If intentions were synonymous with results then Tim Sutton’s new film, Dark Night, would be a powerful and important commentary on the issue of gun violence in the United States. There are scenes that hit here, moments and images that burn into the brain with a harrowing and haunting effect, but the film as a whole suffers some from a lack of precision and subtlety both.

It’s a summer day in Florida, and while news reports on the radio and TV cover shootings in Louisiana and Colorado, a mix of strangers and friends go about their day. None of them share our knowledge that this might be the last one of their lives. The film opens in media res with a close-up of one young woman, in the dark as brightly colored lights reflect in her watery eyes – lights that could easily be from a film screen are instead the strobes of police cars and ambulances – before jumping backward to track several people who will eventually make their way to the theater that night.

Some teens spend their days getting high or hanging out at the skate park, while others work a shift at their retail job. One young woman (Anna Rose Hopkins) agonizes over her body and social media in an effort to land an acting gig. Another (Ciara Hampton) spends time with her infant son while trying to get her military veteran boyfriend (Eddie Cacciola) to connect with the child. He can’t though as his head still hums with memories of his time at war. One curly-haired twenty-something (Robert Jumper) with piercing eyes enjoys the privilege of well-to-do parents but can’t hide his simmering anger at those around him. A teen (Aaron Purvis) endures an interview with his mom at his side focused on his darkening psyche.

All are headed for tragedy, and one among them is responsible for orchestrating it, but while Sutton makes a small attempt at tossing in red herrings it’s clear who the shooter will be. The film isn’t actually trying to trick viewers though – it’s not meant to be a thriller or mystery of any kind – and instead it’s making an observation as it moves slowly and deliberately through these people’s lives. Everyone is suffering in their own way.

Sutton doesn’t judge anyone’s behavior as instead he’s simply documenting it, but his cinéma vérité-style as applied to a narrative and his scattershot focus leaves viewers detached from the subjects and their correlations. It’s a microcosm of the bored, troubled, and mentally ill, and while brief thoughts are given to the idea of video games as a culprit and the pressures faced by returning vets the overriding theme seems to be that we as a nation are simply not paying the right kind of attention to those around us.

Despite it not being a thriller, the film’s most effective sequences are those that would be right at home in one. We watch silently as a computer screen displays Google Earth’s step-by-step path to the theater. The killer-to-be stalks an ex in broad daylight culminating in a terrifyingly tense shot of a rifle barrel pointing at the back of her head – this is us, the film is saying, constantly in the cross-hairs. Watching the gunman walk the street, openly carrying the assault rife while neighbors are glued to their daytime TV, is an equally haunting image. He’s a disturbed and angry young man with access to serious firepower, and no one’s noticing.

While not a retelling of the Aurora, CO tragedy that unfolded during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, Sutton makes efforts to connect these events in our mind in ways both obvious and hammer-to-nail obvious. The film’s title and scenes of one character wearing a Batman mask get the job done, but we also see one teen dying his hair James Holmes orange. But don’t be fooled – look! – the real killer’s hair glows orange too as the sunlight filters through his car’s sunroof. (And look what he does to those poor, defenseless chocolate-chip cookies!)

One odd and debilitating element of Sutton’s film is the repeated ogling of female flesh. We get a lot of it with the wannabe actress, more than enough to drive the point home that she’s obsessed with her looks, but it’s also omnipresent with the teenage girls. Butt cheeks hang out of shorts, bikini time is spent at the beach – sure teenagers wear these clothes, but again and again the camera seems drawn to their exposed skin with its focus, angles, and the height from which its shooting. The camera is leering at these girls, but whether it’s a commentary on their loose morals or own lascivious natures is unclear.

Dark Night believes events like the one in Aurora aren’t unique. We know this already of course, just as we know the walking wounded are around us everyday, slowly moving towards a choice that will affect both them and others in profound and deadly ways. The film doesn’t pretend to offer any answers, and it doesn’t take a stand on gun control or the state of mental health treatment. It’s simply holding up the mirror… and then angling it a bit to get a better look at some girl’s ass.

Follow all of our Sundance 2016 coverage.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.