Black Mirrors

by Jake Meaney

24 May 2007

These two films reflect our fears of terror and violence through a glass darkly What looks back at us in Day Night Day Night is teetering on the verge of a dark, dark void, and in The Killer Within is but cravenly hiding itself behind its impartial, reflected veneer.
Day Night Day Night 

Day Night Day Night (dir. Julia Loktev)
The only words that matter in Day Night Day Night come in the opening minute of the film. A young woman whispers to herself on a train, so softly it needs to be subtitled (both for clarity and emphasis), rapidly rattling off a litany of different ways one way may die, from the mundane to the extraordinary. She recites with a breathless cadence akin to an incantation, as if she’s praying to, pleading with, someone, like she’s trying to steel her resolve and convince this other person. Her last words, before disembarking for an intense and troubling 48-hour ordeal, are “I have only one death. I want it to be for you”

We never find out this girl’s name, nor who this “you” she addresses is. Nor do we find out who her anonymous ski masked handlers are, who sequester her in a hotel room in New Jersey for a night and a day. We never find out any details of their sinister agenda, nor ever know why the girl consents to being strapped with a bomb and set loose to wander Times Square. All we see in the film’s 95-minute run time, all we ever know for sure, is a profound lack of hope festering into desperation, a deceptive calm collapsing into breakdown. There is no release, no reason, no detonation, no resolution. The film’s drama, its very real and palpable tension, is of this one moment of calm before the storm, this singularity which is actually the entirety of the film itself, a pivot upon which all else turns, held for an improbably and uncomfortably long time.

Day Night Day Night

Day Night Day Night

Day Night Day Night is among those rare breed of films which are unbearably tense precisely because of their focus on the tedious and the mundane routines that surround and herald something cataclysmic.  Most of the first half of the film we see the girl doing little else but bathing, brushing her teeth, sitting, and sleeping, as she prepares for her last day alive. The second half accompanies her as she wanders about Times Square, eating her last meals (mostly junk food), trying to muster up the “courage” to push the button. Nothing happens, yet everything does.  We see worlds course across the girl’s face, moments of clarity and devastating doubt, frustration, hopelessness, a breakdown of faith, failure. It is all supremely uncomfortable to watch.

And I have a feeling most audiences will have little or no patience for Day Night Day Night, not so much because of the ostensible surface subject, but more because of its rigorous and demanding stylization, its refusal to compromise to the conventional template of films that deal terror and fear. There is no catharsis here. Its seductive power is not so much in the visceral terror of contemplating suicide bombers wandering US cities, but in putting those of us who live in such cities in the very head of one such person, thus refusing us a chance for escape. The entirety of the film focuses on the girl—she is in every single frame—and then mostly on her face.

There is a harsh purity to her stark beauty, like she’s been drained of the color of life, which reinforces the drained visual palette of the rest of the film. It’s like we are gazing upon ghosts wandering adrift in a purgatorial nightmare. But the film is also as much about her gazing at us as it is us at her—she is in our head and we in hers, the sound mix drawing us into her very breath, her lungs. We run the risk of losing ourselves in her, and this is why the film is so dangerous and potent.

Day Night Day Night is a film teetering on the verge of this dark, dark void.  It is nothing we want to see, but perhaps exactly what we need.

The Killer Within

The Killer Within

The Killer Within (dir. Macky Alston)
The day before I saw the documentary The Killer Within, a quick news item on the IMDB caught my eye, something to the effect that, in the wake of the Virginia Tech Massacre, both the Meryl Streep film, Dark Matter, and the documentary The Killer Within had been indefinitely pushed back for release.  I don’t know anything about the Streep movie, but the day after this item posted, I had the opportunity to see The Killer Within, which apparently won’t be an option anytime too soon for a general audience. That’s a shame.  Not because it’s a particularly good film, but because it is indeed eerily apropos of the recent massacre of Virginia Tech, and might provide some sort of illumination for some viewers.

But most likely not. The Killer Within is a difficult film to countenance, and might even be somewhat irresponsible, though not for the obvious reasons. In 1955, Bob Bechtel, an unassuming student at Swathmore, executed one of his classmates, Holmes Stozier, with a shotgun while the latter slept. It was the first of a planned multiple homicide killing spree that never was fulfilled. Committed to a mental institution and found not guilty by reason of insanity, Bechtel was released from state custody to resume his life, which by all appearances ended up being successful and happy. He’s a well renowned professor at Arizona State, a devoted husband and father, living in bucolic bliss in Tuscon. His wife and daughters know of his crime, and have variously come to terms with it as a specter which haunts all their lives, but also as something that happened in another life.

One day, Bob gets it in his head that he needs to confess this dark truth to his extended family, friends, colleagues, and students. His motives are vague.  He claims that he’s lived a “lie” too long, that the psychological toll is starting to weigh too much on him. And yet, it’s unclear what he thinks these confessions will accomplish, except to disrupt other peoples lives unnecessarily—and unnecessarily at best, maliciously at worst. No good can come of this.

And indeed, as the film progresses, Bob emerges not as the aw-shucks schlub he presents at the film’s outset, but as a deeply troubling borderline sociopath, seemingly devoid of the vestiges of any real guilt, displaying an almost nonchalant lack of affect when presented with his crime. He claims that constant bullying by the victim and others led him to his act of desperation, and all but explicitly admits that he hid behind his insanity defense. He seems to still find his act justified, and he is unapologetic, even somewhat sadistic, like he knows what he got away with murder.

The Killer Within

The Killer Within

Half-way through, the film shifts the focus onto Bob’s daughter Carrah, and how she has to come to terms with her father’s crime, yet again, now. She is beset by tough questions of guilt, the possibility of forgiveness, and even the question of her own existence, since her father’s freedom is the only reason she is alive. Unlike her father, she is gravely affected, and tries to dig for some deeper understanding, even though it eludes her.

I thought at first I admired the film for its refusal to dig for an agenda, to take a hard line. These questions, and their answers, are indeed unfathomable, as the wake of Virginia Tech reilluminates the issue of what drives one to kill his classmates. Indeed, the search for an answer, any answer at any cost, is perhaps irresponsible and dangerous. But the more I thought about The Killer Within, the more I realized that, like Bob, the film is cravenly hiding itself behind its impartial veneer, allowing Bob to get off the hook when it should be calling him to the mat. Letting the man have a forum to convince us of his own “innocence”, despite his admitted culpability, perhaps to cleanse his conscience even as he admits to no actual guilt, is more irresponsible on the filmmaker’s part than having never questioned the man at all.

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