With a title easily confused for Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies — including the one that inspired an amateur super-villain to open fire on an unsuspecting cineplex audience in Aurora, Co. — Tim Sutton’s “Dark Night” is at once a glib play on words and a sobering rumination on the mindset of a suburban America simultaneously obsessed with and plagued by gun violence. Offering a paradoxically intimate and inscrutable glimpse into the lives of half a dozen could-be victims, the film challenges traditionally passive audiences with tough questions — an art-film provocation heightened by the sly fact that Sutton’s poetic social critique will soon find its way from rarefied film festival screenings to the sort of escapist popcorn venues it depicts.
Compared to topical ensemblers that come right out and explain their politics, using each character as a mouthpiece for a different facet of the writer-director’s position (a la “Crash” or the low-grossing gun violence satire “All the Rage”), “Dark Night” takes an approach so understated, audiences may struggle to make sense of its deliberately ambiguous and highly elliptical style. “What exactly is Sutton trying to say?” one can almost hear them asking, when in fact, the director prefers to let viewers observe, free-associate and arrive at their own conclusions — an approach cultivated across his two previous features, “Pavilion” and “Memphis,” which have placed him among the country’s most intriguing cinematic anthropologists.
The film opens in virtual abstraction, as songstress Maica Amata’s otherworldy vocals carry us from a black screen to an extreme closeup of a young woman’s eyeball bathed in red and blue lights. This pretty young blonde (Ciara Hampton) could be watching a movie or, as the next shot reveals, merely staring into space, seated on the curb beside a flashing police cruiser, having just witnessed an incident far more horrifying than the movies could ever portray. Sutton has no intention of depicting the shooting itself, although he does wind the clock back to earlier that morning, observing the mundane daily activities of this collection of total strangers, united by their desire for escapism — and ultimately betrayed by a lunatic determined to corrupt the presumably safe, virtually sacred space of a movie theater.
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Americans go to the cinema for myriad reasons, but first and foremost seems to be a desire to substitute the ennui of their own lives for vicarious entertainment. Here, cycling among a handful of souls who will come together later to watch “Dark Night” (a ubiquitously marketed movie whose three-eyed logo has been plastered on walls and lampposts all around town, a la “The Dark Knight’s” Joker-driven graffiti campaign), Sutton illustrates the frustrations each is trying to get away from, while blurring whether his cast are playing characters or merely appearing as themselves.
We meet Aaron Purvis, who plays with snakes and dreams of being on the news, interviewed on the couch beside his mother, as if his past might explain his actions. (But what has he done?) There’s Anna Rose Hopkins, a frustrated actress obsessed with fitness who’s constantly taking selfies (but for whom?); minimum-wage-earning superstore workers Rosie Rodriguez and Karina Macias; vacant-eyed Robert Jumper, who walks his dog and daydreams about killing the girl who rejected him; military veteran Eddie Cacciola, who spends his free time cleaning his firearms; and Andres Vega, an affectless skater inexplicably inspired to dye his hair bright orange, the way Aurora perp James Holmes did.
Any of these characters could be the killer, and indeed, Holmes’ defining features appear to have been divided up and distributed among them, though the film expressly avoids trying to understand why the Aurora shooting happened. Rather, it emphasizes the profound loneliness these disconnected Americans feel in their respective lives. Their deaths are a tragedy (even if we don’t know which ones were ultimately killed), and yet, so too are their lives in various ways: empty, incomplete and almost zombie-like. They are unfulfilled, celebrity-envious consumers trying to get by amid an endless expanse of parking lots, shopping malls and middle-class homes — a cultural mentality embedded in each meticulously composed frame, even if such specific sentiments are never spoken outright.
Though the framing, blocking, music and sound design of each shot lend themselves to the big screen, the experience also feels akin to paging through a coffee-table photo book, as we grapple to make sense of this frequently abstruse, context-thin sequence of observational tableaux. Making her U.S. debut, veteran French d.p. Helene Louvart (“Pina,” “The Beaches of Agnes”) brings an outsider’s eye to suburban Sarasota, Fla. Despite similarities to such philosophical indies as “Elephant” and “Fruitvale Station,” this seemingly cold and somewhat distant approach will surely frustrate many American audiences, though it should give “Dark Night” traction abroad, where the pic’s ubiquitous gun culture is all the more chilling.