Vague and ambiguous to a fault, filmmaker Tim Sutton’s abstract, “ripped from the headlines” thriller Dark Night thinks it’s asking viewers to meditate on darker societal issues, but ends up saying nothing thoughtful or interesting. It’s not that a film like Dark Night, which takes inspiration from recent tragic headlines about shootings in movie theatres, has to hold the hand of viewers to make a point about gun violence in America, but it seems like asking Sutton to employ a bit more focus and depth is too much to ask. I suspect that Dark Night is purposely meant to feel like an empty experience, but in going so far down its darkly artistic path the film ends up registering like a blank slate instead of a more accomplished work of undefined dread and unease.
There’s no real plot to speak of throughout Dark Night except to say that it takes place in a nondescript Florida suburb sometime after the real life movie theatre shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Lafayette, Louisiana, both of which are directly referenced here via news reports. The Aurora incident is also unsubtly referenced subtextually by Sutton throughout via the thuddingly obvious title (since the Colorado shooting happened at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises) and a moment where a clearly unstable person puts on both Batman and Joker looking knock-off masks.
Dark Night is told through snapshots of people’s days – some of them presented in faux-documentary interview structure – before and during an unseen incident at a megaplex on the night of a major film release a lot of these characters are looking forward to. There’s a military man with a family and a severe case a PTSD, a video game enthusiast, a skateboarder, a social media obsessed model trying to find work, and a handful of others. We never really get to know any of them, some have actual arcs leading to their trip to the theatre (or just the theatre’s parking lot), and others have almost nothing going for them at all.
So we’re not supposed to sympathize with or understand these characters, but to basically not want them to die, be placed in harm’s way, or commit a criminal act. It’s not enough, and Sutton drifts from scene to scene – some of them quite memorably staged and composed – with a deliberate form of abstract lethargy. With Dark Night, Sutton (who’s no stranger to abstraction) paints human nature and decision making as surreal, hard to follow human constructs, which results in a final film that’s fitfully observant, but delusional if it thinks that any of this stands for something on a larger level. Think about what might have happened if Jacques Rivette tried to remake Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, and you’ll understand the kind of tone Sutton looks to approximate here. If that doesn’t sound enticing or you don’t understand either of those cultural reference points, stay as far away from Dark Night as possible.
As for everyone else, there will be moments that do help to illuminate and theorize about how gun culture and the internet have helped to make America an insular, protectionist nation. It also looks at how any number of characters in this film could have been driven down a similar path, and Sutton’s biggest betrayal of his own material might be that he actually reveals and makes obvious who the shooter actually is. Everything else in the film is so deliberately oblique that suddenly spelling things out before the film fades off into blank faced nothingness is more frustrating than never setting up anything of substance from the outset.
Dark Night is a confounding, but competently made film that’s disorienting in all the wrong ways. Despite boasting a handful of images that I could commend, I can’t recommend this as art, provocation, commentary, or cinema. I’d say it fails at everything it tries to attempt, but I’m still not sure what Sutton is even attempting here. It’s inscrutable to the point of frustration; almost as if Sutton should be appearing on screen at the end directly addressing to audience to ask what they make of all this. The only response I would have to that would be to go back and question what Sutton thinks of his own film, and I even doubt that he has most of the answers. It’s a film that could be played for tasteless, provocative nihilism or pointed social commentary, but instead chooses distanced apathy. It’s a poor decision.
Dark Night opens at The Royal in Toronto on Monday, February 27.
Check out the trailer for Dark Night: