The defining quality of poetry is that much of the page is blank. This is the ‘white space’ literary critic Christopher Ricks claimed that words dissolve into, allowing the reader room to think. In Tim Sutton’s Dark Night, that white space becomes little more than a blank stare.
Sutton’s film is often wilfully obscurantist, supporting a provocative but flawed thesis. Even the genre of the piece appears open to question. Is this a (non)dramatic reconstruction, or a documentary? We see seven characters who seem to represent seven different flavours of isolation: a selfie-obsessed young woman (Anna Rose Hopkins); a PTSD affected Iraq vet (Eddie Cacciola) trying to reconnect with his estranged child; a Latino family (Rosie Rodriguez and Karina Macias) working at the mall, a skater (Andres Vega); a young artist and gamer (Aaron Purvis) with a shaved head and issues being interviewed with his mom; and Robert Jumper, who stalks the film as the would-be supervillain preparing mass murder.
Whether these are characters or people essentially playing themselves is unclear. Sometimes this confusion can create interesting surprises: a young woman appears to be watching a film but as the camera reveals she’s actually sitting on a curb and the lights on her face are those of the emergency services. Taking a leaf from Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Sutton settles into a Chronicle of a Death Foretold structure as the unwitting characters head blindly towards their fate with tabloid horror. Each of the characters foreshadow what we know will eventually happen in obvious – the vet cleans his guns – or more subtle ways: the sunshade of Jumper’s car colours his hair a similar purple to The Joker, who James Holmes emulated on the night of 20 July 2012.
Twelve people were murdered and over seventy people injured. Holmes also rigged his home with explosives which fortunately were diffused. He chose the cinema because it was easy to lock the exit behind him. He was a fan of superhero movies and had chosen a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, which Sutton’s film references. But do the connections between the disaffected lives of the potential victims (we never learn who was or wasn’t shot) and the perpetrator equate to a there-but-for-the-Grace-of-God-go-I equivalency? If the selfie woman weeps uncontrollably or the skater dies his hair orange, does it mean that they could also commit mass murder? Holmes had a series of quite profound mental health issues, but Jumper – with his cinematically striking eyes – somewhere between Malcolm McDowell and Peter Lorre in M – reduces the character almost entirely a goggle-eyed glare.
Helene Louvart’s cinematography is beautiful and some of the images are gorgeous. But this beauty seems unreal. The world she shoots is remarkably empty. The midnight screening was packed with 400 people but here it seems only half full. The car park is empty. Are these people really isolated or has the filmmaker set up the shot like that? And is taking a selfie really a sign of alienation, or narcissistic self absorption that masks a deeper emptiness, or is it just taking a selfie? Isn’t this kind of guff just a patronising cliché now? But Sutton would no doubt argue that the film isn’t a reconstruction of the Aurora cinema shooting itself. Rather than Colorado, it’s set in Florida and rather than Holmes, Jumper is presumably a copycat, or perhaps a reply.
At one point, Holmes dons a Batman mask as if to say something, before glaring – once more – directly into the camera. But this fictionalisation feels like a cop out, giving the director license to say whatever he wants without the responsibility of having to address the pain of actual history. Dark Night feels more like an interesting prologue to a fascinating filmmaker Q&A than a film in itself. In its determined avoidance of sensationalism, it finds itself stranded in an empty space so understated, it is genuinely difficult to understand what, if anything, it is saying.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty