Julia Loktev’s debut film, Day Night Day Night, about a female suicide bomber who sets out for Times Square, is the type that critics love to praise for “possessing an artful ambiguity” and “resisting easy answers.” And when they do, they’ll be right, except that Loktev’s film, for all its art-school bravado and post-modern elusiveness, never gets around to asking very tough or very interesting questions. Day Night is concerned only with terrorism at its most quotidian and banal, willing only to explore the personal at the total expense of the political. It may be the first movie about a terrorist that doesn’t care about terrorism.
There’s not much in the way of story, more a sequence of wholly expected encounters on the road to what is intended to be a spectacular attack. In parts unknown, an unnamed girl, perhaps 20 years old and of uncertain ethnicity, spends a few days in a hotel room with masked men. There, she readies herself for an attack: repeating instructions, carefully washing herself, sharing a pizza with her handlers, picking out the appropriate outfit for the attack. They prep her for a video message (which we never see) by dressing her up in military garb and giving her a machine gun. Eventually, she meets with a bomb expert. He gives her an explosive-filled backpack, and then she sets out for the hub of the world: New York’s Times Square. She seems calm, even mildly happy throughout, going about her business as one might when getting a haircut or taking a Saturday afternoon walk.
We never find out why she’s chosen to give her life — and take the lives of many others — and Loktev brushes away the question as if it is unnecessary. Instead, the focus is on the minutiae: the pretzel and the candy apple she eats on her way to Times Square, the methodical way she clips her toenails in the hotel room, the exact fit of the explosive backpack. The girl’s mental state is of little concern either; the film opens with her quietly, but intensely, chanting a list of ways that people might die — a heart attack, a knife, mosquitoes — and then concluding, “But I’ve made up my mind. I have only one death. I want my death to be for you.” This fanatic’s mindset evaporates as soon as the scene is over, however. Any information regarding who that “you” is and how the girl came to be so devoted to him or her is brushed aside in favor of chronicling the moment-to-moment physical experiences on the way to her target. Loktev has no use for motivation or explanation; all she’s concerned with is sensation. It isn’t so much inside the mind of a terrorist as it is inside her body.
And as far as that goes, Loktev works minor wonders. Prior to working in film, she’d worked on audio production, and it shows. Her sound design seems to have been recorded from inside her protagonist’s skull; it’s a mad jumble of aural textures that laces even the smallest, stillest scenes with an unnerving intensity. During the hotel-room prep, Loktev is particularly attuned to the sounds of the body, including teeth chewing on food and squishy warbles of soap on flesh. At times her sounds carry an almost physical weight; you feel them as much as hear them. Times Square — a gluttonous feast of audio-visual information perfect for an exploration of the senses — squeals and bleats and rumbles, a traffic jam of conversations in a dozen dialects. It’s a marvelous cacophony.
But sensation without thought, no matter how stimulating, holds little beyond the momentary experience it affords. One might argue that there is a place for this amidst the distanced, global view of terrorism in films like Syriana. But if the common mistake is to view terror from afar, Day Night makes the opposite blunder, burrowing in so close that the subject can no longer be seen except in unrevealing pieces. Loktev would have us trade the wide, impersonal view of a satellite for the view through a microscope, where the pores and dirt and hairs are clearly visible but one can’t get any meaningful sense of the whole.
Especially given the subject matter, this isn’t enough. By reducing the terrorism down to its bare, experiential details, with nary a sign of the political, historical, or mental, Loktev makes it accessible, even relatable. Here is a seemingly well-adjusted, ordinary girl out for a stroll in New York, trying to run an errand — only the errand happens to be the murder of dozens. But we never see images of violence, and there is little concern for the bomb’s intended victims — or, indeed, for aftermath of any kind. Beyond the girl’s initial announcement that she has “chosen her death,” she never does or says anything that might separate her from the audience. All the politics and history that would set her apart are left blank; Loktev never goes so far as to ask us to excuse the girl’s actions, but, whether intentionally or not, she does ask us to sympathize with them.
One might debate whether that, in and of itself, is objectionable. But Loktev’s reasons for asking are as simple-minded as they come: We all see, and hear and feel, right? Well of course, but in the real world, actions, thoughts, and beliefs matter, a notion that Day Night refuses to recognize. Instead, Loktev intentionally chooses a rather naïve, surface approach to mass murder. This is meant to be provocative, and though her technical ability often makes the film evocative, her childish lack of political curiosity, in the end, leaves the film as meaningless as the violent act it purports to reveal.
–Peter Suderman is managing editor of National Review Online.