Dark Night (2017)

Directed by Tim Sutton

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Dark Night is a retelling of the 2012 Aurora shooting at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises.  What Tim Sutton tries to do here is give us a hyper-realistic glimpse into a day in the life of multiple people.  He does this through vignettes that offer little context, not even the characters’ names, and forces us to observe them, relate to them, and try and figure out what’s going on inside their heads.  The movie even begins with a talking head segment that makes you wonder if this is a documentary at first.

The better version of this story was done with Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003), itself a retelling of the Columbine shooting.  In that film, the camera would follow the cast of characters for long periods of time as they worked their way through high school.  Their lives were almost too mundane, but that was the point.  These weren’t movie stars, just normal-looking kids who would not be prepared for what we know would later happen.  In that film we were also given a similar glimpse into the lives of the two boys who would commit the heinous crime.  From what I remember, there was not much in the way of mystery regarding what they would do.

But Dark Night plays with the audience a little more in a way that feels a bit manipulative.  We know where this story is heading, assuming you knew the premise going in, and we meet several characters who could be the shooter.  There is a disturbed kid, the one we meet in the talking head segment, who is an outcast at school and plays violent video games while discussing, with an online friend, the fallacy of believing that such video games actually make kids violent in real life.

There is the silent military veteran who sits by, unmoved, while others talk openly at a support group for other veterans and who later, in a long slow motion shot, demonstrates his deadly accurate aim at a gun range.

And then there’s the kid who dies his hair orange like the actual Aurora shooter whom we see on the news in one scene, but this is all meant to mislead us.  The actual shooter turns out to be another disturbed kid, motivated by something resembling self-pity but likely a whole lot more than that too.

At first I loved the naturalistic, quiet style of this movie.  I’m a sucker for such documentary-like sequences, and the movie does make these characters feel so incredibly real.  They’re the furthest thing from actual actors, and they feel real because they’re awkward, uncomfortable, and they feel like the type of people who would shy away from a camera.  The effect is that, when you see them, you feel like you’re really peeking into their lives and inside their minds.

Again, this is reminiscent of Elephant but also another Van Sant film, Paranoid Park.  That 2007 film followed one particular teenager, a very awkward, accurate depiction of a type of teenager, as he tried to deal with a tragic mistake he committed.

Really, the best parts of this movie now feel repetitive, and the worst parts, well they feel exploitative.  Whereas Elephant avoided any specific mention of Columbine, instead letting you see the similarities based on the contents of the story, Dark Night actively tries to tell you about the Aurora shooting on which this is based.  The title itself is meant to reflect the title of that Batman film that was showing during the massacre, but it’s not just that.  We see news coverage of the Aurora shooter, suggesting that the events of this story take place very recently after that one.

Then we learn that the movie all the characters we’ve met are about to see is called “Dark Night.”  And one of the girls, on the way to see the movie, wears a batman-like mask.  Even the shooter tries on a few masks in a mirror, one of which is a batman mask.

Is this just a case of being too heavy-handed?  These details are completely unimportant.  Simply by making a movie like this, ending with a cineplex massacre, we know what you’re alluding to.  But the movie gets too creative and thus loses all sense of realism.  It starts as an exploration of real life, the people you might meet on the street, and the unpredictability of certain (potentially deadly) events, but it ends like a bad, pretentious art film.

It starts as a story about the characters, but it ends as a story about a real event.  It’s not about the people, basically, by the end.

Part of my frustration is that clear attempt to make us wonder who the killer will be.  There are multiple, somewhat disturbed, characters, and by holding this question over our heads, we don’t appreciate the realism and the subtlety, the details of their lives.  Instead we just read into everything as an indicator that this person may or may not be the suspect.  This makes a mystery out of something that is anything but.

A movie like this should make us think about our own lives and ourselves.  We identify with the hyper-realistic details of these characters’ lives.  The way they behave, the silence and isolation with which they lives their lives, feels authentic.  The point shouldn’t be to wonder who these people are, but to suddenly look at this mundanity with a new lens, knowing that they might not be long for this world.  And the movie opens with a shot of people watching the police deal with the aftermath of the crime, so we know for sure (even if you’re unaware of the premise) that something bad will happen.  Even if it’s disgusting, that’s nonetheless a “hook,” something meant to hold our interests while you go about setting up the exposition.

So, knowing that some or all of these people might die, we suddenly look at all the stuff they do differently.  When there’s that girl taking ‘selfies,’ we might think out moments we’ve done the same.  And the effort she puts into these photos feels devoid of meaning, not just because we don’t share her vanity (even if we identify with or recognize it), but because we know that she might die, so there are more important things.  But I think that these moments, and this context, offers us a new way of looking at our own lives.  Maybe we re-evaluate what we do, the ways we waste our time and while we don’t necessarily have to overhaul our ways of life, we might gain some new appreciate for the beauty of mundanity.

But then the director Tim Sutton toys with us, trying to make this some kind of murder mystery.  Is this guy the killer?  Or this kid?  This question makes us ignore the more interesting, nuanced, abstract questions about how we live our lives and how self-aware we can be.

Near the end of the movie, one of the disturbed kids, who by now we know is not the killer, approaches his pet turtle with an axe.  We cut away before anything gruesome happens, but… I don’t get it, why?  What’s the point of this scene?  It’s like Sutton establishes the character as disturbed just so that we might think he’s the killer, but then once we know he’s not, Sutton realizes he’s built up this character as possibly violent, and then he thinks there’s got to be a payoff to this nature of the character.  I’d argue that there needs to be no payoff.  Maybe he’s just troubled, and we don’t have to see where that leads.  But the scene with the turtle and the axe, while possibly symbolic, just feels cheap.  I don’t think it serves any purpose.

To me the kid can just be troubled.  Maybe his character is the antithesis, in some ways, to the kid who ends up becoming the shooter.  The troubled kid with the turtle gives us plenty of reasons to think he could be the shooter, but he’s not.  And maybe he’s not a risk to anyone around him.  Maybe not all troubled kids are violent.  Mental health is a serious thing, and it should be dealt with carefully.  By making the kid violent, even just towards his pet (which is still pretty horrific), the movie might quietly be making a statement that there are a lot of troubled kids who pose danger to the rest of us.  And that’s wildly inappropriate, I think.  The options aren’t either to lock them up or ignore them.

And I asked myself that question, of what you could do to prevent this situation, as it came closer to happening.  The shooter gets into his car with a bag full of weapons and ammunition, and an elderly neighbor greets him in passing.  The neighbor asks where the party’s at, and the guy sardonically replies, “at the movies.”  Now, if that neighbor suspected something was up, what could he do?  I’m sure he knows the young man and would never suspect that he could be capable of carrying out such violence.  So he’s unlikely to call the cops, and anyways, calling the cops would make for an awkward situation if the kid wasn’t really up to something.

And there’s no easy answer.  Maybe the fact that I found myself thinking about this means the movie did have something to say, but I credit that to the nature of the story more than the style in which it was made.

To be fair, before I end this post, the military veteran whom we’re given plenty of reason to think might be the killer, turns out to be a nice guy, taking his young nephew to the movies.  So he’s doing okay, it seems, even if taking a two year old to an R-rated movie is probably not a great idea.  When I argued that the other troubled kid’s sudden decision to kill his turtle ruined the value of his character to the story, this man fills that void.

That being said, it felt similarly exploitative.  This type of story should avoid any subjectivity, at least to the extent it’s possible.  All these characters are presented in quiet vignettes mostly devoid of commentary or anything that could influence how we see them.  But in the end we’re given plenty of direction on how to look at several of the characters.  It’s abstract to start, asking us to do the legwork and figure out how to feel, but at the end we’re spoon certain emotions.

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