With trial coverage of Aurora, Colorado, cineplex murderer James Holmes on television screens and reports on the July 2015 Lafayette, Louisiana, theater shooting circulating on news radio, the singular fates of a constellation of strangers in a humid Florida town are about to horrifyingly converge. A lonesome tone poem with a mournfully inevitable final blow, "Dark Night" is writer-director Tim Sutton's (whose "Memphis" previously played at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival) contemplative, unanswerable reaction to the escalating mass shootings and gun violence dotting the American landscape. Its lackadaisical, cinema-vérité style may prove a notch too esoteric for some, but for others it is a wondrously sad, tensely suggestive art piece.
Vague echoes of Gus Van Sant's 2003 masterwork "Elephant
" percolate through this stirring 85-minute montage of images, Sutton and director of photography Hélène Louvart dropping in and out of the lives of a handful of Sarasota residents on a lazy summer day that deceptively appears to be just like any other. There's the withdrawn, college-aged artist (Aaron Purvis) who has no friends and cannot help but fantasize about being famous, with flashing lights and cameras bombarding him as he leaves his house. There's the aspiring actress (Anna Rose Hopkins) who spends the bulk of her day taking selfies and making content for her social media presence. There are a pair of retail-working friends (Rosie Rodriguez and Karina Marcias). There are a group of teens who while away at the skate park. There's the young working mother (Ciara Hampton) and her boyfriend, a military veteran (Eddie Cacciola) with a preoccupation for firearms. And, finally, there's the mysterious guy (Robert Jumper) with the shaggy mop of brown hair who drives around town, running errands and putting the finishing touches on a hellish plan from which he is not about to back down.
A story told primarily through visuals and mood, "Dark Night" is a stripped-down stunner. Paced with a deliberate sure hand, director Tim Sutton invites his audience to observe his onscreen figures, the whole of them a microcosm of the country. He makes no judgments, but he watches intently and asks his audience to take away what they will. Maica Amata's ethereal vocal stylings accompany this narrative triptych, a slowed-down cover of "You Are My Sunshine" enough to send chills down one's spine as these vulnerable human souls prepare to congregate for an unassuming night at the movies. The title may be a wordplay on "The Dark Knight Rises
," the film being shown during the Aurora massacre, but there are other meanings and deeper connotations at work. So it goes with the film as a whole in all its thoughtfully layered provocations. In a culture where mental illness is easily overlooked and gun control is still woefully inadequate, the media can easily turn the premeditated slaying of innocents into ghastly performance art. "Dark Night" wisely does not tell its audience how to think, but it hopefully will serve to continue an urgent conversation demanding of our attention. The alternative, simply put, is unconscionable.