A movie about a suicide bomber in which nothing happens? The Seinfeld influence has gotten way out of hand, Judge Adam Arseneau notes.
"I've made up my mind. I have only one death. I want my death to be for you."
On paper, Day Night Day Night is a screaming maelstrom of controversy and antagonism designed to provoke and infuriate—a film about a suicide bomber preparing to head off to Times Square with her deadly payload. In this cinematic reality, like in real reality, the truth is always more complex.
Facts of the Case
A young woman (Luisa Williams, To Each His Cinema) answers a call on her cell phone and is told to "get ready." She complies by traveling to a hotel room, where she is eventually greeted by masked men. These men are here to help her prepare for a terrible task: to strap a bomb to her back and walk, unnoticed among the throngs, into Times Square. In truth, she is little more than a teenage girl, but if she seems afraid, she does not show it.
Day Night Day Night is a minimalist drama in the most literal sense of the word, in that it is a drama where the absolute minimum of events happens to still be considered as such. If anything less happened in the film, it might even cease to be recognizable as a motion picture. Day Night Day Night has a start and an end, and in between these two points, not a lot happens. Except that, odds are, if you (the viewer) are watching the film, you already know the premise; and so as viewers, you have expectations. Big, explody ones. And, oh, how the film teases.
Cinematic realism taken to the extremes of banality, the pacing in Day Night Day Night is both mind-numbingly dull and agonizingly tense; unfortunately for the viewer, usually a dire combination of the two. Day Night Day Night amounts to little more than a young woman preparing for a task—a suicide bombing in New York City, as it were—and we are privy to every agonizing, painstaking detail imaginable. We have no idea about the details of anything beyond that premise. We don't know who she is, what she believes in, who she works for, or anything about her cause. At times she seems as confused as the audience, but at other times, she radiates a steely confidence and determination that is scary to behold. She moves from place to place, responding to instructions by an overly polite anonymous caller over a cell phone, and waits for further instructions. She sits and stares at the walls, waiting. And we wait along with her, anxiously, nervously, and, sometimes, tediously. Believe it or not, this tediousness is the scary part.
What makes the film frustrating to watch, but also infinitely rewarding in all its awkward simplicity, is the tension and drama that develops through the surreal normality of Day Night Day Night. We watch this woman prepare herself for a suicide bombing in New York City as if it was merely another item on her to-do list: she gets up, brushes her teeth, picks out an outfit, coordinates her shoes, grabs a bite to eat, and heads out to set off a bomb in a crowded place. This calm, rational approach to a completely crazy action borders on the blackest of black comedy, so utterly resigned and calm in its cool demeanor that all one can do is laugh. What else can one do? In one sequence, the protagonist is shown methodically brushing her teeth; in the next, she's getting instructions on how to detonate a backpack explosive from masked men. The true tension and fright in Day Night Day Night is in this total lack of exploitation, of sensationalism, depicting the act of suicide bombing as something so painful in its logistics that it borders on the dull: memorizing details of a false identity, recording videos, trying on outfit after outfit for anonymous masked men, and deciding in unison which is most "normal" and therefore best suited for martyring one's self without being noticed. Important stuff for the aspiring suicide bomber, no doubt, but completely at odds with the action-packed method of delivery we as a cinematic culture are used to being fed this subject.
Why is she doing this? We know so little about the woman, about the scenario that leads this sequence of events to transpire, that asking "why" feels irrelevant. Here lies the understated brilliance of Day Night Day Night, in coming right out in a post-9/11 landscape and making a film about blowing up Times Square without even trying to justify it. It is a brutally honest thing to come out and say, to force audiences to accept the perverse normality in such action. By making the act of martyrdom so normal, Day Night Day Night begs the question: Why not in New York? Why not anywhere? What drives somebody to such an act? Extremism is easy to identify, get mad about, and condemn, but only on crazy foreigners; when all three of those things suddenly become sympathetic to our own population, then what? By making the act of terror so freakishly normal, Day Night Day Night horrifies in…a really boring sort of way, but horrifies all the same.
For a film with such agonizingly long takes, minimal dialogue, and zero political agenda, Day Night Day Night definitely has a lot to say, just not the things you might expect a film about blowing up Times Square to say. Sober, slow-moving, and grim, full of frighteningly agonizing long takes, Day Night Day Night cares nothing for politics, focusing instead on loneliness and sadness, and of the acceptance of realities beyond our control, however painful they may be. This is a sad, melancholic film, full of unanswered questions, painful realizations, and subverted expectations, for both the viewer and the protagonists involved. A play in dichotomy, the film frustrates in its low-key approach to an angry, emotional subject, but simultaneously dazzles with its profound depth, complexity belying its minimalism. It's hard to know what the @#$% to think.
Newcomer Luisa Williams is perfectly cast as the unnamed suicide bomber-to-be. Awkwardly pretty in an unnoticeable sort of way, of no clearly discernable ethnicity or age beyond "young" and "pretty," she fits to a tee; she's exactly the kind of person most feared to take up such a cause: the perpetually invisible kind. As for other cast members, there are none—this is as much a one-woman show as a film can be without it being some special starring Sarah Silverman. She steals the show by default, true, but her performance truly is magnetic. We spend so much time in her presence, staring at her face, watching emotion dance across her eyes, that, by the end, we are quite involved in her plight. And, oh, how the last lines in the film haunt with their beauty and sadness.
Day Night Day Night, with its handheld camerawork, overexposed cinematography, and washed-out, muted color palate looks quite dazzling; a very artistic and expertly rendered film made on the cheap with some unusually stylish cinematography. The camera enjoys positioning itself in atypical positions behind characters, rendering frames in narrow focus, its long takes punctuated by broken cuts punctuating the dead narrative. Visually, the DVD looks impressively sharp and well-defined, with excellent fidelity and sharpness. The stylish over-saturation makes a mess of black levels, but other than that, Day Night Day Night looks quite fantastic on the screen.
As for audio, all we get is a simple stereo presentation, which according to the packaging might actually be a simple mono source. The sound is painfully adept at capturing all manner of live environmental noises—the crinkle of plastic wrapping, the chewing of the woman as she eats her pizza, the ticking of clocks, all amplified as if to imply their fleeting status in the woman's life. After all, she won't be hearing them again. The track gets the job done, but exhibits some unpleasant characteristics of a location shoot: hissing white noise, undesired environmental noises, wind distortion, and the like. Bass response is good, and the sound is clear, but often muddled—you have to really crank the volume to hear all the dialogue clearly, and then you jump in fright as a door slams.
A commentary track with writer/director Julia Loktev is the sole extra feature to be found, save for a theatrical trailer. Open and forthcoming, her musings provide a thoughtful and rewarding accompaniment to the film. I especially enjoyed Loktev's elaborations into the subtleties of the themes presented, as well as shooting details and all the stuff we expect from good commentary tracks. She tends to get off target now and again, but the track is solid overall.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
To be the bearer of the freaking obvious, for a wide variety of reasons, this film will not be for everyone. The subject matter alone is particularly grim and uncomfortable, but that problem is easily dealt with: nothing happens in Day Night Day Night of any controversy whatsoever, because nothing happens in Day Night Day Night at all. Anyone outraged by the presented subject matter can rest easy and be pleasantly infuriated by the frustrating pacing.
I mean, nothing happens in this film. I mean that in the most literal sense of the word. The camera rolls, and then it rolls, and then it runs out of tape, and some lackey on set changes it. Then, again with the rolling! At some arbitrary point, the credits show up, and the DVD ejects itself out of your DVD player, into some dusty corner where you will never watch it again.
I exaggerate, of course. Still, Day Night Day Night won't win any friends in the excitement department. Tread carefully, those of you who fear cerebral, minimalist cinema.
Although at times it's unendurably boring, one cannot deny that nothing short of a cinematic miracle has occurred here, in turning such an ugly and uncomfortable subject into such a surprisingly complex, moving film. Having watched Day Night Day Night three times, I am still unsure how the trick was done. Houdini would be proud…and just a wee bit bored, maybe even sleepy.
Recommending this film is inherently problematic. A story about a suicide bomber in Times Square is a film designed to push buttons, but Day Night Day Night deliberately avoids pushing the ones we expect, and ends up pushing ones that are entirely unexpected. That, of course, is the whole point, and the understated beauty of the film. It subverts expectations so masterfully that truly, one is unsure whether they should be disappointed or elated by the subterfuge. Personally, I admire the film for its pluck and bravery.
I have never seen a film quite like Day Night Day Night, and that alone would make it worthy of my praise. You would be hard-pressed to find a more understated and unique cinematic experience, but be warned: if excitement is what you seek, a cocktail napkin would offer more.
Guilty of being kind of boring, but nothing more serious than that. A beautiful composition, if you dig this kind of thing.
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Scales of Justice
• Feature Commentary with Writer/Director Julia Loktev
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