Mass shootings have been a major issue in American life for the past couple decades with no end in sight. In 2012 during a midnight showing of The Dark Night Rises, James Holmes entered the packed auditorium and slaughtered 12 innocent people and wounded many more. It’s an event that haunts many to this day. That dark chapter of our recent history is the inspiration behind writer-director Tim Sutton’s latest film Dark Night, which follows a wide variety of characters through their everyday life before they all converge on a movie theater one fateful night. The arthouse rhythms of Dark Night are at once the film’s strengths and weaknesses, as it’s a very detached examination of its characters that slowly builds to an anti-climax.
Even though everything in Dark Night is building towards a horrific mass shooting, there’s really no plot at hand in Tim Sutton’s film. There’s just an array of characters, most of whom are never given a name, while they go about various day-to-day tasks. Some segments play out in a documentary-like style with interviews, and other aspects are just fly-on-the-wall observations. Long stretches of the film pass without dialogue or music, as Sutton seems more interested in capture the mundaneness of these everyday people than sensationalizing their quirks or personalities. It’s a bold storytelling choice that makes for some interesting, albeit not necessarily captivating, cinema.
The same approach is employed when looking at the story’s would-be mass murderer, played by the wild-eyed Robert Jumper. Sutton give you just enough information that you know something isn’t quite right with the character but never dares to you deep into his psyche or motivations. You can see the character take a sort of fetishistic approach to his weaponry and the cold distance he exudes when around other people. So much of this character is open to interpretation, making Dark Night much like a blank canvas where you can project almost any motivation onto the characters – something I think provides the film with its most haunting examination of the lone wolf killer.
It’s still hard to get wrapped up in the events of Dark Night because of its languid pacing and distance from its characters. Tim Sutton is taking aim at times towards American gun culture and the distance between the film and its characters is a means to avoid exploitative look at these issues but it prevents the film from feeling immediacy towards its subject. Dark Night is a movie that is almost striking, almost profound, and almost excellent. In attempting a delicate balance, Tim Sutton has a crafted a movie that is interesting in its exploration of the lead up to a mass shooting without ever employing graphic violence, but the movie is really lacking in an emotional punch to leave much of a lasting impact.
An arthouse examination of the lead up to a mass shooting, Dark Night handles its subject delicately by avoiding graphic violence but maintains a distance from its characters that leaves the film lacking an emotional punch to match its subject matter.