It almost seems a shame to review Julia Loktev’s Day Night Day Night at all, since even the most cursory mention of the basic plot spoils something that the film withholds till almost the halfway point, draining away potential mystery and suspense, to replace it with tension.
It’s a critic’s conundrum particular to this particular movie, on account of the fact that the whole movie essentially consists simply of that basic plot, and the steps leading up to it.
But what are you going to do? No one sees movies without any idea of what they’re going to see (The Wexner Center’s own Secret Cinema program aside), and it’s not like you’ve much chance of finding yourself in the Wex’s theater without any idea of what you’re there to see anyway.
So here goes: A nineteen-year-old young woman travels to Times Square, is outfitted with a back-pack bomb by her handlers, and wanders about, seeking the right moment to detonate herself and a crowd of random civilian victims.
Who is she? Why is she doing this? What cause is she going to martyr herself too? Loktev has carefully constructed the film to offer practically no clues at all.
Her unnamed protagonist looks to be of non-European descent, and is somewhat conservative in her style of dress, but no religion or race is ever given, and she doesn’t have any sort of accent. (She’s played by an unknown actress named Luisa Williams, who learned of the gig via a flyer asking for “an ethnically hard-to-place girl”). Most of the members in her unidentified group wear full facemasks, although one of them is Asian, one is black and at least two are white; they don’t betray any accent or politics either.
They pose their bomber for a martyr’s video (not that they refer to it as such) in front of abstract, vague militant backdrops, and just as the bomber is about to recite the script, we cut ahead.
All we really know is that she intends to become a suicide bomber, and that she believes in a god of some sort (there are several scenes in which she feverishly whispers to herself, invoking a “you” who knows more than she does, whom she’ll meet and whom, on one occasion, she asks for a sign).
By sucking out all the politics behind the act, and the context in which such acts occur, Loktev removes any and all possibility of rationalizing or potentially justifying suicide bombing (One complaint leveled against 2004’s Paradise Now, the drama about two would-be Palestinian suicide bombers, was that even telling the story, did just that on some level).
Loktev has thus rather elegantly reframed things so that the film isn’t about any particular ideology, movement, people, place or country—it’s about a young woman planning to blow herself up, and take others with her. And even that is reduced more to the act, the preparation for it and the execution of it, than on the woman herself, of whom we learn precious little, despite all the time we spend with her.
The film is roughly divided into two sections. The first half is set in a hotel, in which the girl ritualistically prepares for the act, with the occasional aid of rather unnerving, seemingly all-knowing handlers who make her jump through weird hoops (It’s this half which would be a pretty affecting bit of cinematic horror, if you didn’t know what the movie was actually about—there’s an odd sense of control exerted by the men, and it’s unclear just how much of a volunteer the young woman is for long passages of the this half).
The second half finds her actually in the city itself, walking wide-eyed around, eating soft pretzels, drinking in the local color, and working up the nerve to push the button that will kill whoever’s nearby. She’s half-tourist, half-terrorist, and the movie she moves through is cinematic time bomb, constantly ticking.
And it’s every bit as tense as that sounds.
Day Night Day Night will screen Friday and Saturday, July 20-21, at 7 p.m. at the Wexner Center for the Arts’ Film/Video Theater. It screens with short film Presto-Perfect Sound. For more info, click to wexarts.org