2006. Julia Loktev
Day Night Day Night is the best film I’ve seen in a theater this year. Granted, that’s not a difficult title to gain since the only other films I’ve ventured out to view are The Last King of Scotland, The Lives of Others, Black Snake Moan, Disturbia and The Tripper.
I saw the film yesterday afternoon at the 2:45pm showing and there were maybe fifteen people in the audience. I was by far the youngest, with the median age of the patrons probably hitting 52 and based on the chatter I could gather on my way out, I was the only one who liked it. It’s a tough film to get behind and a lot of it feels antagonistic, particularly in the first thirty minutes or so, but viewers that stick with it and buy into what Loktev is selling will find a truly rewarding experience.
The first half of the movie takes place almost exclusively in a hotel room, with one character trying to find ways to pass the time. Information about the girl or why she is in this hotel room waiting for a phone call is given sparingly and some takes linger on lead actress, Luisa Williams’ expressionless face so long that you begin searching for anything in the frame to latch onto. We eventually learn that she is there to receive instructions on becoming a suicide bomber and she is visited by three men in hoods who give austere directions in polite tones. It’s focused on procedure and minutia and unflinching in it’s appreciation of nothingness. During these scenes, the sound design is overdone to the point of fantasy. When Williams scrubs her feet, the squishy sound of soap becomes almost supernatural, as does the clang of the metal clippers when she cuts her toenails. Perhaps Loktev was trying to suggest the heightening of our senses due to the delicacy of the subject matter and the state of mind of our heroine. Or perhaps she just had a sound mixer with a slight hearing problem.
During these scenes, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen and I can see why many critics are hailing Williams as a breakthrough star. However, the second half of the film doesn’t quite live up to the daring nature of the first and when Williams is really called upon to carry the weight of the screen, she seems to falter. Her face is made to be photographed but her performance becomes less powerful the more she lingers on screen. The filmmaker though, has crafted a piece of work so reliant on the one face and the features of this actress, that an audience has no choice but to be enthralled with it and to project their own conclusions upon it. That’s why her performance is being so hailed and it’s a testament to the work of the director that she was able to pull it off.
The direction for the most part is strikingly assured. Save for one major blunder in the first five minutes, every shot is beautifully framed and executed with real thought put into the choices. As I mentioned before, sound is also used particularly well. There’s one shot in the film of the main character sitting in the passenger seat of a car, riding to catch a bus to carry out her heinous act. The driver and her don’t speak and they get stuck at a red light. The camera stays with them in real time as they wait the two minutes for the light to change and the shot is so long you begin to wonder why they possibly would have left it all in. It’s a maddening point in the film where you know she’s carrying a bomb in her backpack and you can’t fathom what she’s going to do with it and why. You may wonder so long that you don’t realize the only sound filling their awkward silence in the car is the constant tick-tock of the blinker.
It may seem obvious but it’s done with such grace and confidence that you can’t help but be impressed and drawn under the spell of the film.