What does it take to strap a backpack full of explosives to your body and become a human bomb? Reducing the question to an exercise in abstraction, Russian-born filmmaker Julia Loktev's Day Night Day Night tries to provide a context-free answer but is undone by postmodernist affectation and art school minimalism.
Set over the course of 48 hours, the film follows a young, ethnically ambiguous woman (Luisa Williams) as she prepares herself as a suicide bomber. From terminal to waiting car to nondescript hotel, the regimen leading up to the nameless woman's mission is as portentous as it is banal; a shower, eating, waiting for the next phone call and its set of instructions. Every moment is reduced to the immediate, the camera often lingering inches from the anti-heroine's face. It's cinema verité at its most uncomfortably intimate.
Eventually, a group of masked men her handlers show up. Methodical and nondescript, they prepare "she" for her mission, identifiable only by voice and hands. They are black, white, Asian, male and female, all wearing generic attire. No background, motivation or situational information is supplied; no details are given, only a fake ID, a last meal and, of course, the backpack loaded with a nail bomb.
The next day, "she" sets off for Times Square during rush hour, ready to fulfill her destiny. Or is she? Walking the streets of New York, struggling to choose a location to detonate, the hustle and bustle of the city begin to overwhelm her. The people, the sights, the sounds; she begins to have second thoughts, which are compounded by small kindnesses strangers show her. But there's no back-up plan, no easy way out. She's cut off from the organization that recruited her and left with only a few dollars. Will this anonymous but polite woman follow through on her awful plan? Loktev's answer is simultaneously unexpected and uninspired, dodging the question with a contrivance that undermines the point of her film.
What begins as an eerily mesmerizing experience in narrative austerity becomes a tedious exercise in post-modernism, playing more like performance art or an art gallery's video installation than a feature film. There's no denying Loktev has a sure hand when it comes to her protagonist, shot composition, naturalism and pacing. Unfortunately, she also has a tin ear for politics and ends up presenting a confused and overly conceptual treatise on a very real act of violence. Refusing to provide personal, emotional or political context to an act of terrorism is interesting in theory but quite something else in reality.
The difference between Day Night and similarly themed films like Paradise Now or The War Within is that those other movies invested time developing the characters and circumstances that lead to such appalling acts of terrorism. Loktev strips away all hint of personality, reducing everything to detached interactions and routine preparations. By assuming no moral position or POV, no empathy for its protagonist, the film is rendered topically inconsequential. It's an anti-character study, if you will.
Ultimately, you can't help but feel that Day Night is all a setup and no payoff a deliberate criticism of the audience as it anticipates the explosive money shot. Loktev's relentlessly spare aesthetic is an intellectual gimmick, teasing us with promised mayhem then subtly chastising our prurient interest. Which prompts the question: Is this a film about the motivations of suicide bombers or the expectations of the audience? A far more interesting topic to discuss than it is to sit through.
One show only at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 28.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].