Tim Sutton recognizes that now’s not the best time to open a movie about people being killed in a movie theater. At the same time, it could be the perfect time. With his third feature, “Dark Night,” which bowed at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, the filmmaker has made an art film-thriller inspired by the 2012 Aurora, Colorado shooting during a showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.” It’s not a recreation of it, though. Instead it’s set during the day of a similar tragedy, following around six strangers (a teen, a vet, a selfie-obsessed woman, etc.) who may be a victim, a survivor or the killer himself. It doesn’t offer explanations for the act, but it does portray an alternate view of the American suburbs, where bored people deal with their problems in isolation, looking for some kind of transcendence. For one of them, the breakthrough comes in the form of unimaginable violence.
Sutton talks to us about why we shouldn’t subsist strictly on escapist fare, avoiding social issue statements and playing around with the film’s title.
The first time I saw “Dark Night” was last summer, when it played at BAMcinemafest. But I have to admit, when I tried to rewatch it for its theatrical release, it was at the end one of those days when Trump was ramming all these terrifying executive orders through. When I tried to put it on that night, I just couldn’t watch it. I had to do it another day.
I know. Trust me, you’re not alone. Here’s my argument, though: You can go watch “La La Land,” and you can forget everything about the world and about confusion and about frustration and about not knowing how exactly the world is going. And I think that’s bulls—. [Damien Chazelle] is a totally skilled filmmaker, he’s probably the best of his generation. He’s going to be a master. But he made a film that is basically putting gauze over people’s eyes so they don’t have to think about it. It’s sheer escapist entertainment. I think the world of cinema needs to have something else, like “Moonlight” or “Dark Night” or many other films, to show cinema is still engaged with the world.
I would argue dark films like this are therapeutic, too, in their way. They allow us to reach epiphanies, rather than only putting out head in the sand — which, I’d also argue, is important to do now and then as well.
You do need to take breaks from it. You do need escapism. But you need to engage, too. The artist’s job right now is to ask that people engage — not demand, but ask.
“Dark Night” is definitely one that does that. But on one hand, it’s not about a shooting. It’s a look at a part of America, which looks like a lot of other places around America.
The film is set in Florida, but it could have been Tulsa, it could have been Minneapolis, it could have been Indianapolis. It could have been any small town that has a strip mall in it. The idea is these people in this landscape are suffering from a lack of connection. It could be emotional, it could be economic. It could be something that has to do with their immigration status, or they’re just back from the war and trying to get back into the day-to-day of American life.
There’s always a challenge, and that challenge doesn’t always come in the form of confrontation. It comes from a lack of communication. We’re all checking our likes on Facebook, but not necessarily picking up the phone to talk to people. We’re all wondering why these violent events happen, then we go to the movies and see giant explosions and masked vigilantes shooting up cities, and then go home and play our first-person shooter video games, where the object is to kill. There’s a deep fissure in the communal life in parts of America.
I suffer from it, too. The character who takes selfies all the time is based on me and my experiences. I’m on Instagram all the time. Does it really happen if I document it the way I want it to be seen on Instagram? There’s this whole ennui that is allowing people to either drift further away from each other or to sink into a fantasy. There’s this need to break out or break free. I think the people who are committing atrocities or horrible acts of violence in real life are trying to break through this boredom of theirs or this isolation and do something that can make a mark.