Loosely based on the 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colorado during a multiplex screening of “The Dark Knight,” Sutton’s elegantly designed drama contains a fascinating, enigmatic agenda. In its opening moments, Maica Armata’s mournful score plays out as we watch a traumatized face lit up by the red-blue glow of a nearby police car. Mirroring the media image of tragedy divorced from the lives affected by it, the ensuing movie fills in those details.
Over the last several years, Sutton has joined the ranks of a new American minimalism. While his aesthetic immediately calls to mind Gus Van Sant, Sutton’s documentary-like technique of casting amateur performers in atmospheric conditions echoes a similar approach by Matthew Porterfield; both filmmakers are chronicling Americana through expressions and asides that transcend language.
Sutton’s striking 2012 debut “Pavilion” followed a bored teen over the course of one lonely summer, and the following year’s “Memphis” captured that city’s poetic relationship to music through the wanderings of a forlorn singer. “Dark Night” marks an ambitious step up for Sutton’s mesmerizing formalism, as it offers a scattershot view of possible victims over the course of a single day, leading up to the ghastly deed established at the start.
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The ensuing tension largely involves suburban malaise. With the brilliant cinematographer Hélène Louvart (“Pina”), Sutton envisions the setting as a form of mass isolation. Lengthy tracking shots follow characters through barren parking lots and sidewalks; a recurring bird’s eye view of the neighborhood enhances the sense of sameness.
Down below, however, Sutton finds a variety of alienated characters lost in their individual dramas: A teenage outcast (Anders Vega), a disgruntled father (Eddie Cacciola) and a body-obsessed young woman (Anna Rose Hopkins) go through the motions of the day in a trance-like state mirroring their surroundings. Seemingly at the center of the thin plot, a blue-eyed recluse (Robert Jumper) wanders the neighborhood with his gun in tow, always on the verge of a violent outburst. Without diagnosing the cause, Sutton dig deep into the character’s isolation from everyone around him, and suggests that it’s a more common malady than reports would suggest. Jumper is merely one lost soul in a sea of them.
Drifting from one scene to the next, “Dark Night” often feels like a series of likeminded dreams flowing together. There are hints of the atrocity around the corner — glimpses of CNN covering the actual James Holmes shooting in Aurora, the conversations of a teary-eyed support group discussing some unspecified incident — so that Sutton seems to be building toward the grisly climax and away from it at once. The dueling narrative creates a remarkable dialogue between the media narrative and the world preceding its existence.
Sutton’s glacially slow approach sometimes works against the process of comprehending these obviously complex figures strewn throughout the town. But that same quality enables the filmmaker to pierce the air with eerie anticipation of violence around the corner: As Jumper contemplates taking out his unspoken rage on the girl next door, the tip of a gun creeps into her window and inches behind her head before gradually receding; in another stunning moment, a quiet mall scene interrupted by the jarring screams of a crowd carries grim connotations until it turns out that they’re just laughing. Sutton seems to be magnifying the capacity for violence to invade the mundanity of the everyday.
At every turn, the movie casts a haunting spell. While Van Sant’s “Elephant” previously used a mixture of disaffected characters and textured exchanges to explore the circumstances surrounding a mass shooting, its final act was consumed by violence; “Dark Night” includes everything but that. A closer point of comparison may be Paul Greengrass’ “United 93,” in which the foreshadowing of terror toyed with viewers’ imaginations.
But “Dark Night” plays more like a plea for scrutinizing people rather than the reductive tales of their fates. In its final, gripping montage, as theatergoers assemble in near-ritualistic fashion before an unseen screen, the movie’s thematic focus snaps into place. Despite its real world inspiration, “Dark Night” creates the impression that exclusively focusing on the horrific events — and not the people impacted by them — buries the lede.
“Dark Night” premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.