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“Dark Night” Is About The Aurora Shooting But It’s the Opposite of Disaster Porn

Tim Sutton talks about making his Aurora-inspired, Sundance-lauded film in a way that gets under viewers’ skin without exploiting a tragedy.

“Dark Night” Is About The Aurora Shooting But It’s the Opposite of Disaster Porn

Here’s a spoiler for the new film, Dark Night, which draws inspiration from the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora: it does not end in bullet-spraying movie theater mayhem like Inglourious Basterds. No guns are fired at all, actually. Somehow, though, by seeing as little as possible of the actual violence the film evokes, viewers feel more like they’re there—or that they are perhaps headed there soon.

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Dark Night may be bloodless, but it’s not without bite. It’s a day-dreamy tone poem of a film, with shades of Terrence Malick or Larry Clark, and it’s also a eulogy for the moviegoing experience as pure escapist fun.

Tim Sutton[Photo: Todd Warnock]

Tim Sutton, who wrote and directed Dark Night, is by day a film professor at a small college in the woods of Marlboro, Vermont. His first film, Pavilion, came out in 2012, the year of the Aurora shooting. Although post-production on Pavilion had long wrapped by that point, the shooting had a profound impact on the burgeoning director.

“Aurora shaped me as a filmmaker very much,” Sutton says. “When I thought about Aurora, two things struck me. One is that the movie theater becomes this horrible instrument for violent performance art. These people are there to shut down or dream or see a director’s dream, and the audience of course got a nightmare out of it, and I thought that was horrific for the world of cinema, as much as it was for the people who were affected by the violence.”

In some ways, the movie theater is a logical endpoint for mass shootings to spill into, considering how much movie violence has been cited as a source of inspiration. Art imitates life and life imitates art, back and forth in a broken funhouse mirror forever. While there’s a rich history of nuance-free films depicting real-world tragedies with cinematic verve—your 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi and World Trade Center, for starters—a canon for mass shootings has not yet developed, despite the phenomenon’s horrifying rise over the past two decades. It was something Sutton realized over the course of teaching a couple years ago.

The class was centered around hybrid cinema, exploring the space between documentary and fiction. Sutton had assigned students to bring in thirty minutes of a movie he’d neglected to put on the syllabus. One of his students chose Elephant, the 2003 Gus Van Sant film modeled after the Columbine shooting.

“I just realized that without these artistic documents, it’s all just talk, it’s all just news cycles, and the news cycle goes away very rapidly. But these documents like Elephant are still trying to make sense out of this violence and out of these events years and years later. So I knew right then that I wanted to continue Gus Van Sant’s dialogue, and make something new, and just continue a cinematic response to violence.”

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More important than the decision to make a film depicting mass shootings was the decision of how exactly to do so. For Sutton, one element of recreating it was never in question. His film was to contain no violence, no spectacle, no Robert McKee-style dramatic arcs, basically eschewing the tragedy porn playbook completely. It would instead present the reality of the modern world as it pertains to the event of a mass shooting, and invite the audience to draw its own conclusions.

“Nothing is worse to me than something like that Mark Wahlberg movie that’s out right now, Patriot’s Day which is the Boston bombing as basically like a New England Patriots game,” Sutton says. “It’s turning that event into a different kind of sporting event. Us versus them, “We’re gonna win.” It’s almost like he should yell ‘Touchdown!’ when they capture the terrorists. I think that a quieter, more observational point of view puts you closer to the emotional nucleus of these events.”

Dark Night refuses to sensationalize the Aurora shooting. Instead, it grounds the horrific incident in the visual language of modern quotidian living. The film begins at the start of the day in question, and slowly etches out the everyday habits of the people whose lives intersected in violence that night. These reveries are punctuated by the music of Maica Armata, a Montreal-based singer-songwriter, whom Sutton met by chance during a film festival. Her songs are a Greek chorus reiterating mood over plot. We hear them in between observing a flurry of selfie-taking, various teens losing the battle against boredom, and of course, a disturbed young man cleaning his gun with militaristic precision.

Sutton did not set out to make a film that was controversial. Unlike Newtown, the Sandy Hook documentary that also had its debut at Sundance, Dark Night does not make an explicit statement about gun control. While Sutton’s personal politics are somewhere in the realm of wanting to liquefy all existent U.S. guns and invest the metal into our infrastructure, the film is purposefully devoid of such views. Whether the NRA fumes or Mother Jones rejoices, the film itself devotes as much time to penetrating gazes as it does weaponry. Certain people will move to rally around or condemn a movie about Aurora, sight unseen, but in Sutton’s view the film isn’t even about that incident specifically. How could it be, when multiple mass shootings continued popping up in the news during the editing process?

“This isn’t a movie about Aurora,” Sutton says. “It’s a movie about American society yesterday, today, and probably two weeks into the future. This is just what’s happening now and we wanted to make sure the movie felt like a living document. We were trying to create a feeling like it was still happening.”

Even if Dark Night isn’t necessarily about Aurora, it certainly nods to that particular shooting in more ways than its title. There are Batman masks, which in our superhero-obsessed society, could be true of just about any night at the movies, but there is also a character dying his hair orange like James Holmes. The film is not specifically set in Colorado—it was shot in Florida—but in anonymous suburbia, and fictional flourishes abound, like the killer counting how many steps separate his car from the setting of his impending massacre. The most surreal overture the director deploys, however, is including footage of the Holmes trial on one character’s TV set, grounding Dark Night in a reality where the Aurora shooting has already occurred.

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“I think something in cinema kind of died that day,” Sutton says. “Nothing as hard as people losing their lives, but there is something about the collective American experience that’s just getting punished these days and whether that’s all of us on our own screens and nobody’s really connected, one metaphor is that big dark empty theater that we all used to pack.”

About the author

Joe Berkowitz is a writer and staff editor at Fast Company. His next book, Away with Words, is available June 13th from Harper Perennial.

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