It’s understandable and yet slightly misleading that there has been a direct connection between the Aurora massacre of 2013 and Dark Night, Tim Sutton‘s new film about a Florida community where one resident is planning a similar attack. Footage of the trial of James Holmes, the young man who shot 10 people dead in Aurora while they watched The Dark Knight Rises, is seen within 10 minutes of the film’s opening and is discussed, fleetingly, by those watching it. Images of a young man coloring his buzzed hair the same tint of fiery orange and red as Holmes show up throughout the film, as the man skateboards and hangs out with friends. The final, devastating shot features a gunman sneaking into a theater through the back door, just as Holmes did.
These fragmented nods and allusions toward what happened in Aurora are unmistakable for those who followed the case but Dark Night, smartly and thankfully, doesn’t attempt to recreate the events leading up to Holmes’ massacring of innocents. One would be hard-pressed to simply explain Dark Night‘s narrative progression as there isn’t an easy way to describe the narrative itself. Sutton, the director behind 2014’s exquisite Memphis, offers what amounts to an abstraction of everyday life in the unnamed Florida neighborhood, which could essentially double for any sunny place in the United States. A woman exercises and takes a selfie with her morning smoothie; a pair of teens stay glued to their glowing cellphones; a veteran watches his nurse wife walk out on him for good; a boy plays with his pet snake, alone in his bedroom. Elsewhere, one young man imagines walking into a fury of photographers and journalists asking for his motives, and another trudges through his neighborhood with an assault rifle.
Dark Night is not particularly interested in conveying the horror of Aurora or any similar event, though Sutton works up a consistent sense of dread that consistently infiltrates his images and the impressionistic flow of the editing. Rather, Sutton’s film at once questions and embraces the idea of symbolic acts and images. The young man who walks into a cadre of reporters and angry protestors could be imagining that encounter, but he could also be remembering it. Is one to assume the clearly frustrated and angry veteran may be a shooter because of his training? There’s at least one scene where we see his proficiency at taking apart and cleaning his gun but Sutton’s depiction of this exercise is more similar to a mechanic taking apart part of an engine than anything malevolent. This is less true of the man with the assault rifle.
There’s even a kind of biblical symbolism with the boy playing with his snake, bare-chested and bathed in red light, but he’s also just a lonely kid. For whatever the political meaning behind Sutton’s imagery, and there’s plenty, what’s most riveting about this film is how intoxicatingly human it can be. Sutton catches his subjects in intimate moments where words are barely spoken but actions and gesticulations speak perceivable yet unknowable volumes. A skateboarding kid smiles as his best friend grimaces as they glide along a neighborhood street, as a spare, slow rock song scrapes along.
Does this tell you anything about these kids? Probably not and definitely nothing concrete, but to suggest, as a few critics have, that Sutton is signaling towards a general, boredom-struck emptiness in communities like this and, maybe, society at large are plainly ridiculous.
To be fair, Sutton does tend toward more seemingly mundane visions of life in the Florida community, even when dealing with the events surrounding the climactic event. The first image of the film is of a young woman’s eyes roaming around as sequenced colored light bounces off her face. It might take you a few seconds before you realize that she’s not watching a screen but cop cars, ambulances, and fire engines in the parking lot outside the theater. Other moments – kids swimming in pools, a college student getting an academic warning behind closed doors, etc. – similarly feel plain but Sutton’s sobriety doesn’t hull out the film’s powerful emotional core. His eye for detail and modernity, such as when he fills the screen with an online street-view app, is sober and exacting but he also finds potent moments of fury and caring. In fact, Sutton consistently returns to an interview he’s doing with the young man who imagined the reporters
In fact, Sutton consistently returns to an interview he’s doing with the young man who imagined the reporters and his mother, who has nothing but loving and supporting things to say about her son; he also has a best friend who he talks to nonstop while they play online video games. The director is asking us to look as much at what makes people get along in life as the visual indicators of a violent act, to see the elements that support this admittedly docile, boring, and often superficial existence and cultivate the more heartening and genuinely good moments in your life.
Even as the filmmaker heads towards yet another terrifying assault, Dark Night is as much about gloom as it is astonishment, to see the power of an act or an image to either turn someone into a killer or to inspire them toward empathy. Aside from his interview with the young man and his mother, Sutton only comes out from behind the camera one more time, to speak with the gunman about his movie-star look. One is left wondering if he’s speaking about the fame that this movie might bring him or the all-too-familiar infamy that comes with national tragedies.