Day Night Day Night

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/10/07 00:16:49

"Intriguing, But Too Austere For Its Own Good"
3 stars (Just Average)

“Day Night Day Night” is a film that takes a question that is impossible to answer—what would drive an ordinary human being to contemplate killing themselves and countless strangers in a violent act of terrorism—and refuses to supply it with any of the cut-and-dried motivations that are usually ascribed to such actions both in real life and on the big screen. In theory, this is an interesting approach for a film of this type to take and I suspect that it is why that it became such a sensation on the festival circuit over the last year (including winning prizes at Cannes and the Independent Spirit Awards). In practice, however, this refusal to provide any sort of characterization or motivation has transformed the film into little more than an intellectual gimmick—the kind of movie that is far more interesting and edifying to read about and discuss than it is to actually sit through.

Set over the course of two days, “Day Night Day Night” tells a tale as spare and minimalist as its tale. As it begins, we follow a young woman (Luisa Williams)—she is probably in her late teens but looks even younger—as she travels from one place to another and checks into a nondescript motel. Eventually, she is visited by a small group of masked men, none of who appear to be much older than her, who begin issuing here various instructions that she promises to obey without hesitation. It turns out, of course, that she is a suicide bomber and that the other guys are the handlers who are preparing her for her mission while supplying her with the nail bomb that she will be detonating on her person.
The next day, she sets off for her final destination and we discover that the plan is to have her set off the device in the middle of Times Square during rush hour. As she begins walking the streets to her rendezvous with destiny, the teeming and throbbing life of New York City—the sights, the sounds, the smells and, most of all, the enormous number of people doing their thing—begins to overwhelm her and forces her to begin to have second thoughts about what she is about to do. Unfortunately, she is just as isolated in public as she previously was sitting by herself in the motel—she has no way to contact her handlers, no one she can turn to for help and no way of even retracing her steps to get back to some familiar location. Torn between her desire to carry out the mission that she has been groomed to perform and her desire to just abandon everything, she begins wrestling with her conscience as to what to do as the film leads up to that final split-second in the heart of Times Square where she must make a decision that will affect countless lives—most of all her own.

The idea of following a suicide bomber around as they undergo the preparations to annihilate as many people as possible–themself included–in the name of one cause or another may sound familiar to anyone who has seen such recent films as “Paradise Now” and “The War Within.” The difference between those films and “Day Night Day Night” was that they took the time to bring you into the lives and psyches of their central characters so that viewers could began to understand the kind of circumstances that could drive a person to such an extreme act. “Day Night Day Night,” on the other hand, goes to the other extreme by stripping away every possible element that could allow us to relate to the central character. Throughout the course of the film, we never learn her name, her nationality, her reasons for turning herself into a walking time bomb or anything else along those lines–about the only solid bit of info that we learn about her is that she still has parents and that is only because of a brief and abortive phone call that raises more questions than it answers. In other words, writer-director Julia Loktev has taken a situation that could have resulted in a tense little thriller and has transformed it into the kind of austere anti-character study that may put people in the mind of Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” another film that took away every bit of conventional drama to give us a portrait of a young girl so filled with faith in her own convictions that she is literally willing to die for them.

For a while, this is sort of interesting and Loktev does a good job in some of the early scenes of exploring the unspoken gender dynamics that exist between the girl and her all-male crew of handlers. That said, once it becomes obvious that Loktev is not going to provide us with any relief from her spare narrative style, the film as a whole gradually becomes more and more tedious, especially once we finally realize the specific details of her mission. From this point on, roughly the last third of the film, “Day Night Day Night” becomes little more than a politically charged version of that old “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episode with the little kid running around pointing a “toy” gun at unsuspecting people without realizing that the weapon is real, loaded and deadly. Since the central character is a cipher by design, we are left with the situation and the more cynical members of the audience are going to quickly pick up on the fact that unless the film has a real surprise up its sleeve, nothing is going to happen until the final moments and everything up to that point is little more than treading water. (I wouldn’t dream of revealing what, if anything, happens in those final moments except to point out that if you have been watching the film up until that point, the way that Loktev chooses to end her story will probably not come as much of a surprise.)

“Day Night Day Night” is an interesting idea for a film, although I suspect it might have been more effective as a short subject, and the central performance from Luisa Williams, who is on-screen for virtually every frame, is indeed intriguing (although the role has been conceived in such a singular way that I am unable to determine whether she is a gifted actress with an uncanny ability to strip her character to the bone or if she is a one-note actress who lucked into finding a part uniquely suited to her gifts). I admire the ideas that Julia Loktev has brought to the screen but I have problems with how she has executed them. Obviously, this is not a film designed for a mass audience but while I don’t think that it entirely works, there is enough going on here to perhaps make it worth catching if you are in the mood for a minimalist exploration of the subject of contemporary terrorism that will no doubt inspire a lot of provocative post-screening discussion. My only regret is that a lot of those discussions are likely to be more gripping, thoughtful and entertaining than the film that inspired them.

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