A few days after Omar Mateen murdered 49 people in a gay nightclub in Florida, Universal Pictures canceled a press junket for “The Purge: Election Year,” the latest in a dystopian horror franchise in which lunatics butcher helpless civilians. From a marketing perspective, it’s hard to argue with that decision: When tales of real-life violence dominate the airwaves, no one wants to promote a fictional alternative.
At the same time, that moment may represent a lost opportunity. Yes, the junket participants would be forced to cope with a barrage of questions about the impact of glorified killing in popular culture. However, that also might have created an essential dialogue that can only progress when people are willing to engage in it.
In an editorial for Variety, director Michael Showalter accused Hollywood of contributing “to an overall culture of violence that affects our society in negative ways.” Others may see it differently: Hollywood exploits violence, but its recurring outbreaks stem from much deeper problems embedded in the social fabric of this country.
That implication is in every scene of director Tim Sutton’s unsettling “Dark Night,” a pensive look at the moments leading up to a movie theater shooting. Inspired by the notorious 2012 events in Aurora, Colorado, the film premiered at Sundance and closes Brooklyn’s BAMCinemaFest this weekend. It opens in the shooting’s aftermath, then explores a series of moments from lives of would-be victims earlier in the day. Suspense builds as Sutton frames their mundane routines with the knowledge that tragedy lurks around the corner. He explores how media narratives surrounding these events tend to ignore the human component.
At first, it’s unclear which character might be the shooter. Candidates include a struggling high school student and a body-obsessed young woman. Eventually, Sutton settles on a blue-eyed recluse (Robert Jumper) who wanders the neighborhood with his gun in tow. But we never see him playing gory video games or gazing at glamorized shootouts on film and television. Rather than diagnose an external influence on his behavior, “Dark Night” suggests the root of his terrible act defies any tangible cause, cultural or psychological. “Dark Night” is a plea for balance, a sober-eyed assertion to stop playing the blame game and look at the facts. The only political element here is It only politicizes the scenario by virtue of the unnamed shooter’s ability to get his hands on a murder weapon.
At the time of this writing, six months after its Sundance premiere, “Dark Night” has yet to find U.S. distribution. Just as Universal recoiled from promoting “The Purge,” buyers seem queasy about the implications of such a downbeat project.
Nevertheless, Sutton’s film continues to screen at festivals as real-world reflections keep surfacing in the headlines, and not just within U.S. borders: Two days before the BAM screening of “Dark Night,” a German man stormed a movie theater near Frankfurt, injuring 25. BAM did not cancel its “Dark Night” screening (though you have to wonder what might have happened if the event took place on American soil).
“Dark Night” is a challenge in a marketplace that’s doesn’t want to confront big problems, or will engage only if there’s a counterbalance of heroic antics. The underlying assumption is viewers would rather avert their gaze than stare at the truth. However, we need to consider how much that collective desire contributes to a larger issue. The longer we avoid these narratives, the more likely they remain horribly misunderstood.