The gifted filmmaker Tim Sutton sets his sights on American gun culture for his third feature, an artfully crafted work that’s ultimately less than the sum of its parts. Building toward a multiplex shooting — one with more than a passing resemblance to the 2012 killings in Aurora, Colo. — Dark Night tracks the doings of disparate characters over the course of a day. The writer-director’s eye for societal fringes is strong, and the drama has an undeniable visceral power. But unlike his previous outing, Memphis, with its wild, poetic mystery and compelling central figure, the new film is a grim trip, spun around a diffuse core made of familiar parts: contemporary alienation, suburban ennui, pop culture violence.
Working in Sarasota, Fla., and casting mostly amateur locals, Sutton creates an unsettling hybrid of narrative and documentary as he follows his characters through their variously listless, tormented and self-centered hours. (The design contributions of Bart Mangrum and Jami Villers bolster the lived-in feel.) Avoiding graphic violence while alluding to it at every turn, the film opens in the moments after the mass shooting, as emergency vehicles approach a shopping center, their lights playing upon the stunned face of a young woman (Ciara Hampton). From there, the story rewinds to build a kind of puzzle, or guessing game, along with a mounting sense of sickening dread: Which of these quietly despairing people will carry out the crime?
Cinematic craft outweighs dramatic impact.
The answer is increasingly obvious as the narrative interweaves their activities, although Sutton creates convincing profiles of a number of potentially unhinged individuals, some driven by past trauma, others by self-loathing or economic hopelessness. In the most overt doc-style element, a middle-aged woman (Marilyn Purvis) and her friendless son (Aaron Purvis) are interviewed in their living room by an unseen, unidentified figure, leaving the viewer to wonder if their conversation is related to the incident at the movie theater. A sullen Iraq vet (Eddie Cacciola) attends a support group meeting and heads to a shooting range; at home, he methodically cleans his guns. Chillingly, a loner (Robert Jumper) abandons one of his dogs. A young woman (Anna Rose Hopkins) with vague showbiz aspirations obsessively crafts an online image through selfies. Baby-faced tweens get high. A skateboarder (Andres Vega) has a friend dye his hair bright orange.
The characters gradually converge at a mall, among them two teen girls (Karina Macias, Rosie Rodriguez) who work in a big-box store. The enormity of the parking lot, well captured by director of photography Helene Louvart (Wim Wenders’ Pina), reinforces the feeling of people at the mercy of larger forces; so too do her overhead views of the suburban expanse.
Everything about Dark Night is designed to keep the viewer on edge, beginning with Louvart’s frequent use of off-center framing. By the time one of the characters nudges his automatic rifle through the window of a house, unnoticed by two people at the kitchen table, Sutton and his collaborators have built a level of tension and foreboding not unlike that of a horror movie. The sound design is crucial in tightening the screws; the mournful pop tunes of Maica Armata, on the other hand, are too on-the-nose. Then there are the gotcha feints that feel misplaced: a random scream, a bloodied finger, the thwack of a dart striking a wall.
The ubiquity of screens in contemporary life is hardly an original observation, but Sutton uses screens-within-the-screen to character-defining, era-defining effect. There are single-shooter video games, creeping Google Street View images, TV news video of Aurora killer James Holmes’ trial and, finally, the expectant gazes of moviegoers, ready to be entertained. At its strongest, Dark Night taps into the emptiness, hurt and longing beneath the pings and swipes of our “connected” world. But for all its artfulness, the film doesn’t shed light so much as push buttons.
Production companies: Van Riper Archives in association with Big Jack Prods. And Calais Entertainment
Cast: Robert Jumper, Anna Rose Hopkins, Rosie Rodriguez, Karina Macias, Aaron Purvis, Marilyn Purvis, Ciara Hampton, Andres Vega, Bryce Hampton, Eddie Cacciola
Director: Tim Sutton
Screenwriter: Tim Sutton
Producer: Alexandra Byer
Executive producers: Jonathan Gray, Bruce Meyerson, John Baker, Andres des Rochers, Ryan Zacarias, Alex Akoka
Director of photography: Helene Louvart
Production designer: Bart Mangrum
Wardrobe: Jami Villers
Editor: Jeanne Applegate
Composer: Maica Armata
Sound mixer: Eli Cohn
Casting: Eleonore Hendricks
Sales: Cinetic Media
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT sidebar)
No rating, 85 minutes