What are your initial thoughts about a movie concerning a sensitive topic like mass shootings?
After coming out of a screening of Martin Scorsese’s Silence, a friend of mine messaged me saying, “Have you heard about this movie called Dark Night? It looks disturbing.” So I went home and viewed the trailer on YouTube. Dark Night is an indie movie inspired by the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, where James Eagan Holmes killed 12 people and injured 70 during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises. The making of Dark Night stirred up controversy, with some comments on the film’s trailer claiming that this film is exploitive and tasteless. I admit that I was skeptical about the film upon viewing the trailer, but I was also interested in seeing it. So I caught a screening of it at the Alamo Draft House on Friday night.
The basic plot for Dark Night follows the lives of a number of characters, including a girl who is obsessed with taking selfies, two skateboarders who like playing violent video games, and an artist who, throughout the movie, is being interviewed with his mother by someone off-screen. The character who gets the most focus, though, is a boy named Robert, who is planning a shooting at a theater where all of these other characters are going to see a screening of the fictional movie, Dark Night.
One thing people should know walking into this film is that it is not a depiction of the Aurora shootings, because within the first five minutes, we see a news report on television commenting on Aurora. Instead, it seems to be a comment on how common this kind of violence is in our lives. For example, the opening shot of the film is an extreme close-up of a teenage girl’s eye reflecting the flashing lights of police sirens. There is also a scene where a character, while driving, hears about a mass shooting in Louisiana on the radio. Tragically, there have been many mass shootings in recent history, including the recent massacre in Orlando, FL, and they have become commonplace in our lives.
In the film, Sutton seems to be suggesting that these acts of violence may be fueled by imitation, and a need to be noticed. Robert looks and acts like Holmes, the Aurora shooter, and one of the skateboarders dyes his hair orange, also similar to Holmes. In general, the characters seem to crave attention; the boy being interviewed with his mother imagines himself being hounded by the press. And the girl taking selfies is constantly sharing her life online.
Last year, Pure Flix released a movie titled I’m Not Ashamed, a biopic of Rachel Joy Scott, the first victim of the Columbine High School massacre. The reason the film was not effective was because there was too little insight given as to what drove the Columbine shooters, Dylan and Eric, to their actions. Sutton’s approach in Dark Night feels more effective because it allows us to learn more about both the shooter and the victims over time, and allows us to understand them.
Many aspects of Dark Night bear an uncanny resemblance to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, which itself was based solely on the Columbine shooting. Both Elephant and Dark Night are impressionistic in tone, and tend to blur the lines between what is real and what is scripted. Both also use long takes, have a heavy emphasis on silence, and even use stationary shots of the sky. In fact, Dark Night continues the examination of the offenders and victims of mass shootings begun in Elephant. Also, none of the characters in either film are given arcs; rather, we just see mundane moments in their lives. In Dark Night, this is crucially evident in one scene where the girl obsessed with selfies strips down in the bathroom, with half of her body hidden by the doorframe. On paper, this sounds exploitative, but it is handled well in the film, because we are seeing these people’s lives without any filters, and we feel like we are there with the characters when the catastrophe is about to happen. The songs in the film, sung by Maica Armata, make the build-up even more haunting.
This movie is not for everyone, but, at the same time, the film is worth seeing for those who want to take a good, close look at how our world has been shaped by events such as these.
Dark Night will be playing at the Alamo Draft House in Downtown Brooklyn Sunday, February 5th followed by a Q&A with writer/director Tim Sutton.