There's no doubt that filmmaker Julia Loktev makes quite an impression with her debut feature "Day Night Day Night," which shows off her expertise at oblique storytelling and subjective suspense. Yet the bigger questions of why "Day Night Day Night" exists, and what tensions it's capitalizing on cannot be ignored. An artfully minimalist take on a world exploded into maximal fear and loathing, Loktev's tiny-budgeted digital video follows a nameless girl (Luisa Williams) of unspecified ethnicity as she arrives at Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City and begins preparing for a suicide bombing mission. All this information is disseminated in a clinical, dispassionate tone, maintaining a strict point-of-view from shot to shot. Stranded with the girl, whose hollowed, haunted eyes are our only moral barometer in this bare, beige world of seedy hotel rooms and city streets, we're forced to adopt her perspective, while also, due to her anonymity, remaining wholly outside of her emotional experience.
It's dangerous territory, both in literal narrative and in political terms. Playing off of the increasing fragility and instability of a world shaken by tragedy, flayed by warmongering, and terrified of what could possibly happen next, "Day Night Day Night" couldn't help but be inherently exploitative. Loktev maneuvers around this by attempting to put the viewer into the mindset of the potential destroyer rather than the victims (as did the similarly anonymous "United 93"). But since the character intentionally lacks motivation (perhaps because her deeds are to us, so unthinkable), we're not getting into her mind as much as her sensations. This works expertly well when Williams is obsessing over her possibly final moments brushing her teeth, clipping her toenails, or devouring a candy apple with regressive relish (all depicted with devastating, hyper-real aural clarity); yet her climactic sequences, drenched in will-she-won't-she suspense, leave a nasty aftertaste - witnessing her panic and dread and putting ourselves "in her shoes" (an impossibility) becomes something of a spectator sport.
"Day Night Day Night" has the texture and stripped-to-the-core accuracy of allegory - which doesn't exactly meld with its literal hot-button hook. No doubt that Loktev's intellectual approach to the material was honorably trying to skirt sensationalism, preferring a more experimental tone, but does "Day Night Day Night" really bring us any closer to an understanding of our world, or does it simply approximate it? Ironically, "Day Night Day Night" is at its best when most melodramatic: the girl's moments wandering through Times Square, her finger quivering above her trigger, function like dazzling verite performance art. Loktev's control over these images, and their meta-cinematic implications, is impeccable: crowds of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of New Yorkers crowding and passing her, unknowingly complicit in the director's vision of a world one tick away from explosion...and what's stopping the actress herself from housing a bomb in her backpack? "Day Night Day Night" is elegant in its direct evocation of our world's fragility, but far too distanced to provide the subjective experience it aims for.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor at the Criterion Collection.]