Despite the fact that they leave a mark on so many, mass shootings have an air of mystique around them. They create monsters; the kind that are immortalised in TV news broadcasts and Wikipedia pages. Unless we scour for them, we never witness the events that led them to that moment. All that we’re aware of is the brutal hysteria that stems from the act itself.
Our fascination, somewhat morbidly, lies with the perpetrator rather than the victims. As a result, the lives of those who die so tragically become mere factors in a story that, with the help of mass media coverage, creates legends from murderers.
On paper, the premise of Tim Sutton’s quiet and suggestive Dark Night promises to feed that violence-intrigued demon inside all of us. That title, Dark Night, refers somewhat unambiguously to the distressing events that inspired it: the 2012 movie theatre massacre of Aurora, Colorado.
During a screening of Christopher Nolan’s Batman finale, The Dark Knight Rises, a senseless terrorist attack transformed the lives of a whole town. A gunman entered the movie screening, setting off tear gas and shooting senselessly into a sea of cinemagoers. The incident killed 12 and injured 70 more, sending reverberations of shock and sadness around the world. Cinema has the power to bind people together, but in this case, it was the common factor between the victims in one of America’s most heinous crimes.
Tim Sutton’s fictional retelling of these events weaves in references to real life to invoke that sense of dread and despair we all felt then, much like Gus Van Sant did with his Columbine-inspired film Elephant. From the offset, nods to the original incident appear on screen. At one point, we even see the real perpetrator, James Eagan Holmes, in a newscast on television. This, along with a shift of location to Florida, suggests that this isn’t a straight reenactment of the Aurora massacre itself, but a vision of an attack that’s inspired by Holmes’ actions.
Perhaps, this version of events is what makes Dark Night so ominous: it acts as a troubling signifier of things to come by portraying mass shootings, like the one in Aurora, as a depressing fact of American life. As gun control continues to go further down the pecking order of importance in the Trump administration, including a recent bill that suggested that guns should be available to the mentally unstable, films like this have a duty to send the right message.
That message manifests in the way it regularly paints the everyday lives of teenage store clerks, mothers, mentally troubled boys and war vets in the lead up to the Dark Night that will bring them together. Sutton’s decision to omit the horrific aftermath from the film proves it isn’t the unabashed documentation of gun culture that you may have expected it to be; it’s quiet, mostly uneventful and thrives off of the distance between you and the characters on screen. Some filmmakers may have forced the viewer to emotionally invest in their protagonist before that expected finale arrives. Instead, Sutton creates a notable space between the viewer and the subject; forcing us to observe their movements from afar. We know what’s about to happen and yet, no matter how hard we holler, there’s nothing we can do to change their harrowing fate.