If a movie accomplishes what it sets out to do, but it doesn’t do what you want, does that make it a bad movie? If I don’t like a movie, does it make any sense to recommend that people see it anyway? Those are two of the problems I faced writing this review of Day Night Day Night. It’s not the movie I wanted it to be, but in many ways it is technically well done and might deserve more than the shabby 2 1/2 stars I’ve given it. Taken simply as a piece of unsettling, claustrophobic, suspenseful filmmaking, it was actually very effective and in that regard it seems a shame not to recommend it. In fact, if the recent film 28 Weeks Later had half of the tension and suspense of Day Night Day Night, I probably would’ve raved about that film instead of panning it. However, this is not just a zombie movie. It is the story of two days and nights in a young girl’s life leading up to the moment when she is to commit an act of suicide bombing in the middle of New York’s crowded Times Square.
That’s all I knew about the film going in. Had I known less, it would not have been quickly clear what I was seeing because the film dispenses it’s scant information slowly. It opens with a darkened silhouette of a girl whose name we never learn. She is whispering to herself different ways a person could die in what sounds like a practiced recitation. It turns out she’s on a bus and has traveled across the country to New Jersey. She has dark hair and olive skin but she is American accented. She dresses more plainly than American girls her age, but there are no clues to who she is or where she is from.
Once she disembarks at the bus terminal, she receives instructions via cell phone and is then driven to a nondescript motel where she holes up and waits. Soon she is contacted again and some men arrive. They wear masks and there are no clues as to who they are either. One man appears to be Caucasian while another looks dark skinned. They ask her questions as if testing her before leaving her alone again. On another visit, they dress her up in combat fatigues, give her a rifle and have her read a prepared statement on video camera though we never get to hear what is written. Later they bring some clothes apparently to make her look more like a typical American city girl and they give her a fake ID. Much of her time in between visits is spent engaging in mundane activities. She eats. She brushes her teeth. She washes herself and her clothes. She waits, all the while remaining in her motel room.
On the second day she is taken to another location where she is fitted with a backpack full of explosives and nails. She is given instructions on how to detonate it and told where and when to do it. If she fears being caught or found out, she is told to blow herself up even if there is no one else around.
At last she boards a bus for Times Square. When she arrives, her time is spent wandering around the city, seemingly aimlessly, buying a pretzel from a vendor or eating a candied apple, a part of the bustling city and yet separate from it. Now that we know exactly what her plan is, the suspense comes from wondering when and if she is going to carry out her terrible mission. She experiences missteps and setbacks, but I won’t spoil here how it all turns out.
The lack of information we’ve been given adds to the suspense we feel and it is compounded by the claustrophobic filming style. The camera is almost always on the girl and usually in close. For a long time, most of what we see is inside her drab motel room. The early glimpses we’re given of the outside world are over-exposed and washed out so it’s difficult to get a sense of her surroundings. The people she interacts with are either on the other end of a phone or wearing masks. Even when she finally reaches the city, the camera stays in close and the fragments we see of her environment and other people are fleeting.
The girl herself is meek, at times nervous, but mostly matter of fact about what she’s about to do. She seems interested in chatting with her handlers, but they’re only concerned with the task at hand. She has moments of fear and desperation as she sets about carrying out her mission and there are occasional flickers that might indicate doubt, but she’s mostly a blank.
In the absence of supplied details about the girl or her mission, I found myself trying to fit her into my own preconceived ideas of a terrorist. I kept looking for evidence that she was an outsider and probably, I admit, evidence she was more specifically Muslim. I wondered if her recitation about death at the beginning of the film was a kind of prayer or meditation, but in the end, God was never directly invoked nor anything political ever said.
My own reactions were interesting and perhaps they are the ultimate point of the film. Perhaps it’s meant to be a mirror held up for our own self-examination. It’s possible, but I’m afraid with this politically loaded subject matter, that’s just not enough. We’re allowed neither a political context because we never find out why she wants to kill hundreds of innocent people, nor can we form a personal connection with the girl because she is largely a cipher for whom we feel nothing. This denial of a political context and the lack of a personal connection are, for me, the two fatal flaws of the film. There is nothing for the viewer to hang on to. The film plops us down without a compass in a strange and disorienting world. There is no point of view or argument we can agree or disagree with; no way to get our bearings.
Perhaps that’s an accurate reflection of the world we find ourselves in today, but I can’t help feeling we’re left with suspense for its own sake. I admit that such suspense is considerable and in many ways this is a fascinating piece of cinema, but a movie that is about an act of terrorism demands to be more than just entertainment or even more than just art. On that score, Day Night Day Night fails to deliver and I’m left with the feeling that it is taking advantage of an extremely sensitive subject without offering a shred of enlightenment. If I wanted provocation without illumination, I’d listen to talk radio.
Returning to the two questions with which I began this review, I think Day Night Day Night has accomplished it’s goal, but I wanted more from it. Though I was left unsatisfied, I still think it’s a film worth seeing and I acknowledge that other people might have wildly different reactions.
It’s also possible that when I finally sit down and read reviews of the movie or talk to others who have seen it, I will find a new angle of approach and perhaps I’ll appreciate the movie more. I might also end up rejecting it completely. Either way, if my mind is changed I will write a new review in the future.
Day Night Day Night: Germany/France/USA 2006. Written, directed and edited by Julia Loktev. Starring Luisa Williams. 1 hour 34 minutes. MPAA rating: Unrated. 2.5 stars (out of 5)