*A guest review today, from Nick Schager, of Slant Magazine
Day Night Day Night approaches suicide bombing from an abstract perspective, following a young, nameless, ethnically unidentifiable girl (Luisa Williams) as she prepares for, and then attempts to carry out, a mission to detonate an explosive device in Times Square. With no hint as to her religion, her cause, her personal reasons for sacrificing herself, and the identity of her masked cohorts, the girl remains a mysterious cipher throughout Julia Loktev's austere, cinema-verité directorial debut. As a context-free reproduction of the moments preceding a cataclysmic event, the film is something of a narrative and stylistic companion piece to United 93, focusing on the mundane particulars of a (potential) tragedy at the deliberate expense of providing any framework for the action at hand. Loktev seems intent on fictionally envisioning that which she can't fully know – namely, "What do suicide bombers do to pass the time before their martyrdom-seeking deed?" –– by situating viewers in a very particular, banal "space," an endeavor whose success is quickly diffused by a complete and utter lack of insight (or interest in providing insight) into anything being depicted.
Title reflects story structure in Day Night Day Night, as prosaic repetition is the key motif of this odyssey of inaction, which fixates – via long, oppressively silent takes – on its protagonist cutting toenails, scrubbing herself in the tub, shaving her armpits, and napping. With scant, functional dialogue punctuated only by brief moments of the girl whispering fervent prayers to her god ("I have only one death. I want my death to be for you"), and with most everything shot in tight close-ups that capture a sense of intimate tactility, the film is defined by an aesthetic asceticism that's both punishing and, at least initially, mesmerizing in its rigorousness. With no background or situational details to help flesh out what's occurring, and with the director diligently confounding any real-world readings by various means (avoiding mention of specific creeds, casting white, black and Asian men and women as conspirators, utilizing generic revolutionary logos and garb), the girl's activities in her motel room are doggedly stripped down to a conceptual level. In Loktev's portrait, the larger meaning is nothing; the immediate exploit is everything.p>In its exacting severity, this mise-en-scène borders on the Bressonian (or, at least, the Dardenne-ian). However, unlike those artists, Loktev avoids any sense of spirituality and assumes no moral position on the girl's activities, the latter mistake dooming Day Night Day Night to hollow, gimmicky irrelevance. Extreme proximity to the girl's face is consistently maintained, apparently in an effort to transform her into a Falconetti-ish Joan of Arc. But the film nonetheless remains outside the character, refusing (or unable) to imbue her with significant depth – aside, that is, from on-the-spot emotions, which include devotion, doubt, fear, and hopelessness. This denial is in keeping with the girl's own negation of self, most forcefully dramatized during a scene in which she memorizes, by repeated recitation, the name, birth date, and address of her phony ID. Yet by taking such a detached perspective on the girl's quest, the entire project is reduced to an exercise in inconsequential imagination. Concentrating on details in a contextual vacuum, it addresses its overriding topic with a dull, disconnected stare made tedious and empty by its lack of any point of view.
As the girl makes her way through Times Square, staring at passers-by and buying food at walk-in restaurants, Day Night Day Night achieves a palpable sense of edgy, panicky suspense thanks to Benoit Debie's urgent cinematography and a sound design that effectively exploits the contrast between quiet interior and noisy exterior environments. Still, despite Williams' often piercing expressiveness – her deep, dark eyes conveying mounting uncertainty – the actress can't counteract an overriding sense of shameless manipulation, of post-9/11 anxieties being aggressively, methodically stoked in service of a thriller without purpose. In the girl's successful attempts to ask strangers for a quarter (to make a phone call), the film posits forces that complicate the staunch faith she previously exhibited at the motel when, while blindfolded, she fell back into the waiting arms of a male terrorist colleague. Her psychological confliction and evolution, however, is ultimately sabotaged by Loktev's indifferent, minimalist conception of her protagonist and situation, just as the finale's intended tension is undermined by a decision to shoot Williams amidst actual Times Square throngs, resulting in numerous on-the-street scenes in which the supposedly clandestine suicide bomber is gawked at by every tourist in sight.