I first learned of filmmaker Tim Sutton because of his 2013 film Memphis after Josh Larson spoke highly of it on Filmspotting. Memphis ended up making my personal top 10 list in 2014 (the year it was released in theaters). I adored it’s quiet, searching rhythms touched by a spark of magic. It made me think a lot about creativity and art and where it all comes from in the world and in people. Memphis is the kind of film-world you enjoy getting lost in for a couple of hours.
Tim Sutton’s new feature, Dark Night, does not depict a world I want to live in for a moment much less get lost in for a couple of hours. The film follows a disconnected collection of people in a Florida town throughout a day leading up to a mass shooting at a theater that night. The shooting the narrative leads up to isn’t an actual event—both the 2012 Aurora shooting and the 2015 Lafayette theater shooting are referenced by background-noise news reports in the film—and Dark Night is all the more terrifying for it, because it suggests that these are any people in any movie theater in any town at any time. I didn’t enjoy getting lost in this narrative world, because I already live in it.
Dark Night is a troubling film. It’s not scary, and it’s only tense or suspenseful in moments. Mostly, it’s elegiac. Sutton mixes fictional material with documentary-like footage, which makes the whole film feel more real. You never know what kind of film you are watching. The horror of the fact of the narrative world these character live in and that we live in lays upon the film like a thick blanket. There’s no escaping it for even a moment. It’s oppressive.
Why would someone want to watch this film the, you might be asking. Well, Sutton’s patient style and insistence on the importance of emotional moments rather than plot moments yields a contemplative experience. Dark Night provides ample time to sit and reflect on the culture of fear we have created and how complicated the situation is that we find ourselves in. Dark Night is no polemic. It doesn’t adopt a point of view. It simply lays it all out there for you to consider for the film’s duration.
That lack of a clear point of view also means that Dark Night is somewhat detached. It’s an analytical film, almost academic. I expected to weep the entire time I was watching it. I never cried. Not once. The film didn’t seem to invite my tears. Rather, it wanted me to think about what I was seeing. That makes the film more bearable if also more cold.
Gun violence is certainly a big problem for our society, and the solutions to it are going to come through compromise. Clearly, no shooting will be tragic enough to force us to make changes. We’re going to have to work together to make peace deliberately. In that, Sutton’s deliberate method is a welcome one. It provides the artistic space for us to negotiate within ourselves for what we think can and should be done. Then we ought to be better prepared to talk rationally with others and find solutions together. I hope that’s the case, because Dark Night also makes it clear that these shootings are going to keep happening until we do something to stop them.