Context and psychological insight are the major casualties of dramatically limited but strangely powerful portrait of a young would-be terrorist who sets out to blow herself up in Times Square. By turns frustrating and impressive, Julia Loktev's experimental first feature is too radically minimalist to find much of an audience beyond the fest circuit.

Context and psychological insight are the major casualties of “Day Night Day Night,” a dramatically limited but strangely powerful portrait of a young would-be terrorist who sets out to blow herself up in Times Square. By turns frustrating and impressive in its austerity, Julia Loktev’s experimental first feature is too radically minimalist to find much of an audience beyond the festival circuit, although those willing to stick with it may find it an authentically harrowing if not especially revealing experience.

A wiry young girl with sharp, mousy features (Luisa Williams) holes up in a motel room, where she eats, bathes, sleeps and receives occasional instructions from a trio of black-masked men. Pic proceeds at a slow, uninflected rhythm that gives every ritual and interaction equal weight, while stubbornly withholding any information — i.e., the girl’s ethnic background or religious beliefs — that might give viewers any insight into her decision to turn kamikaze.

Livelier second half marks the girl’s arrival in New York, as d.p. Benoit Debie’s handheld camera follows her restlessly down streets and into restaurants with explosives stashed in her back-pack. Filmed in broad daylight on the teeming streets of Manhattan, these scenes deliberately confuse the issue of whether Williams is interacting with strategically positioned actors or unwitting extras.

Delivering a very tricky performance within the tightest of parameters, Williams ultimately succeeds in drawing viewers into identification with her plight, that is genuinely disquieting. When her character’s plan doesn’t go quite as expected, thesp gradually strips off the layers of cold calculation to expose a panicky, recognizably human individual underneath.

“Day Night Day Night” could serve as a working definition of a film that provides more questions than answers, and some may justifiably question the value of a film that tackles the most urgent of contempo issues without the balm of insight or analysis.

Dingy, underlit cinematography is as grim and withholding as the film itself. Sound design is almost too crisp.

Day Night Day Night

U.S.- Germany

Production

A FaceFilm (U.S.)/ZDF (Germany) production in association with Arte (France). (International sales: ID Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Julia Loktev, Melanie Judd, Jessica Levin. Directed, written by Julia Loktev.

Crew

Camera (color), Benoit Debie; editors, Michael Taylor, Loktev; production designer, Kelly McGehee; costume designer, Rabiah Troncelliti; sound (Dolby SRD), Leslie Shatz; sound editor, Riva Marker; assistant director, Melissa Miller; casting, Raphael Laski. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight), May 25, 2006. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Luisa Williams, Josh P. Weinstein, Gareth Saxe, Nyambi Nyambi, Frank Dattolo, Annemarie Lawless, Tschi-Hun Kim, Richard Morant, Jennifer Camilo, Rosemary Apolinaris, Jennifer Restrepo, Julissa Pere.
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