In an unnamed U.S. suburban town, but somewhere clearly akin to a hellish limbo like South Florida, disparate people live their lives with varying degrees of duress, strain and disappointment. Glimpsed in lyrical fragments, slowly revealed over time, “Dark Night” unveils its seemingly random, unconnected cast of characters with a dispassionate lens. There’s a loner teenage outcast who plays too many video games and doesn’t have any IRL friends, there’s a latch-key kid skateboarder on the fringes of parental guidance, a disaffected Iraq War veteran struggling to bond with his family and grappling with PTSD, a social-media obsessed would-be model, a twitchy drifter, an immigrant trying not to stand out, and many more, often moody, troubled or under emotional and financial desperation.
But what binds and defines them most (all unknown, first-time actors) — aside from shared alienations, common appearances as social castoffs and collective exile within this purgatorial suburban-mall wasteland — is a horrible fate that will eventually come into focus.
Obliquely told in a kind of broken glass collage of images and seemingly unconnected scenes, writer/director Tim Sutton’s third arthouse feature-length effort (“Pavillion, and “Memphis” previously) is masterfully made with first-rate precision, but it’s a wrenching experience —a haunting examination of the damaged American psyche perhaps best experienced without knowing absolutely anything about it (which in this day and age can be impossible, but is recommended; **And maybe this is where I tell you to stop reading, but remember this searing movie is absolutely a must-see**).
Exhibiting first-rate control and steeped in an anxious humidity of dread, the disturbing “Dark Night” is essentially a poetic overture to a massacre. That is to say with some intentional obscurity, its unnerving prelude features has guns, agitated and distressed individuals, and a sickening sense that both violent catharsis and reckoning need to be unleashed. Sutton’s picture also zeroes in on the disquieting potential threat of violence that is increasingly part of everyday American life. In fact, perhaps what is so impressive about the pitch-perfect and frightening tenor of this eerily crafted movie, is that for all the doom, portent, and foreboding, not a lick of violence is ever shown. Not one shot is ever fired.
Immersive and committed to its austere form, the solemn, often-dialogue free “Dark Night” never spoon feeds and always allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions; as a witness to these images, the viewer gleans and infers much of the social psychological and environmental trauma that seems to be inflicting these characters. Maybe even suggesting the malaise of American life has made us all ill.
Featuring exceptional imagery and evocative sound and music, these terrific aesthetic choices only magnify the film’s impact. Cinematographer Helene Louvart’s stunning visuals would be considered beautiful if they weren’t almost always tracking someone ominously or framed to express a sinister feeling. Scored with atmospheric unease by French Canadian artist Maica Armata, who also has a small role in the movie, her sparse, ghostly guitar strums and sad voice — think Cat Power when she was in her existentially morose early days — is an integral part of the psychic fabric of the movie. Her music, like much of the movie is also haunting and gorgeous, and this will surely be just the beginning of the conversation that surrounds this sure-to-be-controversial movie (she performs under the name Caro Diaro; keep an ear and eye out).
Geography, landscapes and space are critical signposts too. Sutton’s beautiful/ugly nowheresville abyss feels like a prison where the shopping malls are the fences and the electrical grids and industrial apparatuses are like watch towers where guards stare down on your grim future. Sutton’s ashen environment is like the horror version of Daniel Clowes’ alienating, but hilarious “Ghost World” milieu. Sucked of all its ironic color and humor, what’s left is gray and dead, and would make anyone go mad.
There will be many simple or reductive ways to describe the deeply upsetting “Dark Night,” and one can only imagine the reaction of a Sundance audience who witnessed it for the first time in a movie theater last night (in a school, no less). It’ll be referred to as the movie inspired by the anguishing events of the 2012 “The Dark Knight Rises” shooting in Aurora, Colorado. It will be compared to Gus Van Sant’s hypnotic and unconventional Colombine-inspired high school shooting and Palme d’Or winner “Elephant.” And none of these contrasts will be wrong or even off base. But as a singularly harrowing work, the enigmatic qualities of “Dark Night” deserve better and its far less indebted to anything other than its own elegiac take on a tragic phenomenon all too common in this country.
Perhaps a thought-provoking requiem for a national brand escapism in its final moments — the collective and shared movie experience — Sutton’s blistering and all-too-relevant “Dark Night” paints an unsettling portrait of our culture and the current ailing American headspace. [A]