DARK NIGHT (Tim Sutton). 85 minutes. Opens Monday (February 27). See listing. Rating: NN
Tim Sutton brought Dark Night to Sundance in January 2016, less than four years after James Holmes opened fire on an Aurora, Colorado, audience watching The Dark Knight Rises. I don’t know that it was too soon for a film dramatizing those events, but I do know that this particular work could have used a little more thought.
Dark Night is an arm’s-length dramatization rather than a docudrama – an abstracted, sombre study of ordinary people in a nondescript American suburb drifting through their day, all but one unaware of the carnage to come.
Sutton, who made the American indies Pavilion and Memphis, borrows the floating camera and moody haze of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, which similarly imagined the hours before the Columbine massacre. It’s an understandable, even organic lift, and Sutton’s previous films drew comparisons to Van Sant’s gauzy meditations like Last Days and Paranoid Park.
But having appropriated those tools, Sutton immediately blunts their impact, defusing potentially tense or thoughtful moments by drowning them in an emo soundtrack by Montreal singer/songwriter Maica Armata or clumsily attempting to position multiple characters as potential gunmen before revealing the actual shooter.
In an especially irritating meta flourish, Sutton creates distance from the Aurora massacre by having a character watch TV news footage of the aftermath, suggesting that this event is a separate occurrence – which only confuses things further as the movie’s trajectory heads toward that midnight screening.
For every moment that’s cinematic and powerful – like a recurring shot of a parking lot light tower that resembles the Joker’s jagged smile, or a casual guitar practice that takes a nerve-shredding turn – there are two others that just fall flat. There’s a difference between ambiguity and frustration, and Dark Night falls on the wrong side.