Sarasota, Florida. A group of people who don’t know each other spend the day before a tragedy going about their lives — at work, hanging out, hustling, filling time — while one of their number plans a massacre. In the evening, the strangers attend a screening of Dark Night, a new movie.
Just as Gus Van Sant’s Elephant — to which this owes a huge debt — did not recreate the Columbine school murders but showed a killing spree very like that event, Tim Sutton’s Dark Night isn’t a true-crime drama about the shootings in a cinema where The Dark Knight Rises was screening in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012. Early on, a TV news item affords a glimpse of the Colorado shooter, or at least a sliver of his mugshot stressing the detail of his dyed red hair. Later, one of the film’s randoms dyes his buzz-cut red, raising the possibility that he might be a copycat though, like Elephant, Dark Night inhabits its own reality, and depicts the build-up to a crime which appears to be unique.
In this world, thanks to tastefulness as much as the unlikeliness of licensing images from Warner Bros., a fictional movie called Dark Night is showing in place of The Dark Knight Rises. Its minimalist poster design and the subdued, sombre attitude of the audience — all of whom seem infected by the film’s awareness of horrors to come — hardly suggest a comic book tentpole blockbuster. In fact, the film-within-a-film seems more like Sutton’s Dark Night than anything by Christopher Nolan — even if it’s hard to imagine stoners, families, kids and fanboys flocking to a slow, seemingly plotless, pre-emptively numbed art movie like this.
Withholding the identity of the shooter seems to imply any of these alienated, lonely fictional people with easy access to guns could go blood simple.
Besides Elephant, there’s something of the feel of Richard Linklater’s Slackers as Sutton hops from character to character, providing telling or humdrum little vignettes. A smart, withdrawn kid and an older female relation — like the realworld versions of Peter Parker and Aunt May, sans spider-bite — are interviewed, and a few other flash-forwards suggest that this is a retrospective exercise, raising the possibility that some of these folks will survive while others are fated to be cut down. Or is the shaven-headed, non-practicing artist whose only friend is online about to be the shooter?
Ironies are hardwired in: would-be actress Summer (Anna Rose Hopkins) obsessively poses for selfies as she tones her body, though cinematographer Hélène Louvart seldom shows her face, and poses as her own agent while making a call to solicit a ‘casting’. Will her name and face become famous in the aftermath of the murders? As one of the dead or as a brave survivor? An army veteran (Eddie Cacciola) attends a therapy group for PTSD sufferers and a shooting range where one of the targets is an evil clown, then takes his wife and toddler to the movie (one of the details about Aurora that stuck in the mind was that parents took very young kids to a midnight screening). Another youth (Robert Jumper) paces out the mall parking lot, tries on masks (including a Batman mask and a skull) and is wary with a caller. People say the experience — the movie? the murders? — will be awesome, but no one seems that excited.
There are issues with Sutton’s approach. Withholding the identity of the shooter seems to imply any of these alienated, lonely fictional people with easy access to guns could go blood simple, doing a disservice to real victims of a real murderer. But as a portrait of a fractured America a generation beyond Columbine, locked into the isolation bubbles of phone or WiFi, it’s telling and insightful.
A worthy — if chilly and difficult — addition to the sadly extensive filmography of American mass murder. The soundtrack from Canadian singer-songwriter Maica Armata adds some much-needed heart.