The Century 16 massacre of 2012, where a lone gunman, James Holmes, entered a packed cinema auditorium in Aurora, Colorado during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises and began shooting – leaving 12 people dead and another 70 injured – forms the stimulus from which indie writer/director Tim Sutton soulfully sketches a portrait of suburban malaise in this hauntingly existential examination of contemporary America.
It’s best to ignore the blunt tactlessness of the title; Sutton’s manner is measured and thoughtful. Dark Night may be shot and set in Sarasota, Florida, but the sociological complexities reflected upon here are pertinent throughout the US population, and beyond. DP Hélène Louvart’s visual compositions are etched with an eerie beauty, her camera stalking the residential streets of the Sunshine State with a creeping docu-style invasiveness that’s both stylistically and tonally evocative of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. What we glimpse are snapshots, showing the lives of several strangers who are each trying to overcome the sense of alienated disconnect they feel from the world around them, and whose individual destinies will, unbeknownst to them, soon be linked by a malevolent tragedy.
Meanwhile, in the background, we’re played snippets of news footage that reveal a nation trying desperately to understand what compelled Holmes to kill so many innocent people in cold blood that night in Colorado; a loaded topic that Sutton considers with an incisive maturity. Granted, there are some ill-judged flourishes – one character dying his hair the same luminous orange as Holmes’ strikes one as being too on the nose, and Maica Armata’s piercing score is so achingly mournful it soon becomes emotionally desensitising – but the director thrives in his ability to scrutinize a topic that others, perhaps, wouldn’t want to approach.
Affectingly naturalistic performances from the strong ensemble – Robert Jumper being a particular standout – reveals a society tormented by its own isolation, and, in turn, unable to progress: given that it’s been released in the midst of Donald Trump’s chaotic presidency, Dark Night’s dramatic subtext could not be more relevant. However, there are no easy answers being offered to the tough questions here; instead, we are encouraged to contemplate the real-world ramifications of an emotionally detached community that seems unable to truly value its own existence, and confront the reality that maybe there is no simple solution. It’s this lingering ambiguity – which grips from the opening frame – that ultimately makes Dark Night such deeply uncomfortable viewing.
Dark Night is in cinemas from Friday 18th August.