The Inner Sanctum
by Kristi Mitsuda
Day Night Day Night
Dir. Julia Loktev, U.S., IFC Films
[We feel compelled to mention: Spoilers ahead.]
I’d heard about Day Night Day Night before seeing it, which is to say, I already knew too much. I can only imagine the frisson of terror that must pass through the unprepared spectator when the realization dawns that the film’s young, decent-seeming protagonist, with whom she’s been positioned to identify, is an extremist targeting Times Square. But, foreknowledge or no, watching Julia Loktev’s bold first fiction feature (with the added, uncanny resonance, in my case, of seeing it projected in a screening room located within blocks of the depicted detonation site) is a harrowing experience. From the opening shot, in which we follow this stranger (played by neophyte Luisa Williams), staring straight into her ponytail, her disorientation becomes ours as her eyes sweep around an apparently unfamiliar locale. Amplifying the sound of her footsteps, the writer-director deposits us immediately into her shoes. What Loktev (a New Yorker herself) brilliantly, horrifyingly guides us to reckon with in Day Night Day Night are the ways in which the terrorist—considered the ultimate Other in our time, an abomination of humanity—is completely, ordinarily human. We can’t comprehend the reprehensible end goal but, moment after moment, we relate to her. This is what makes the movie so profoundly frightening: though she is willing to commit this heinous act, we recognize that we can, and in fact do, sympathize with her.
However provocative its premise may be, Day Night eschews sensationalism. Inspired by true stories of female Chechen suicide bombers and composed mostly of contemplative long takes and close-ups, the film charts the quotidian, logistical aspects of terrorist action in the roughly forty-eight hour run-up (hence the title) to a single mission. We hang out with the protagonist as she vacillates from near panic to insomniac boredom. Letting us in on details so mundane and intimate that at first you feel a tinge of voyeuristic embarrassment, Loktev captures the girl, awaiting her assignment in a nondescript motel room, scrubbing behind her neck with a bar of soap, shaving her armpits, and clipping her toenails in a lengthy, painstaking enactment of final physical cleansing. An impressionistic aural design—as vividly conceived as the visuals—brings us physically and psychically closer to her: the sounds of her breathing, chewing, and uncomfortable swallowing are all magnified, registering emotion in each small, unconscious movement.
Loktev has no desire to psychoanalyze; instead she allows the present tense to simply unfold. In this way, its spare intensity resembles Gus Van Sant’s Columbine examination, Elephant, which likewise refuses any pretense towards explanations and sticks to an imagined representation of events. But whereas Van Sant split his point of view among the high-school shooters and their victims to create a piecemeal portrayal that creates an analytical remove, Loktev stays rooted within the experiential world of the would-be bomber; she induces a more engaged, unsettling response than Van Sant by placing us squarely on the side of the terrorist. Like its forbearer, Day Night Day Night will be taken to task for not providing enough context, for lacking insight, yet what explanations offered in the span of a feature-length film could prove anything other than reductive? Loktev’s emphasis on atmosphere and minutiae allows for a haunting opacity that puts the onus on the viewer, and inspires avenues of reflection that would be closed off if given a more didactic expression.
In the absence of overt political, religious, ethnic, or geographic coordinates for the character—designated only as “She” by the credits (her American English carries no telltale regional accent to give her away)—you hone in on vague gestures which may or may not mean much. The way She watches her Asian escort for clues as to how to use chopsticks (her first time using the utensils?) at a noodle house betrays a certain provincialism; her choice in clothing (a collared button-down and long gray skirt which cover her from neck to wrists to ankles) reveals a puritanical streak conspicuous enough to warrant a wardrobe revamp; a disarming cordiality says something about her upbringing (She responds with an “Okay, thank you” to nearly every directive she receives from her hooded handlers, and makes nominal purchases—a pack of pudding, a slice of tomato—after using “For Customers Only” bathrooms in Times Square). She continuously talks to “You,” who we infer to be some variation of God.
Unleashed from the insular realm of tactical preparation, She steps out into New York’s Port Authority (recalling in its setting and aesthetics Lodge Kerrigan’s similarly subjective Keane) wide-eyed. After having been heretofore so methodical in her ministrations—that morning, she goes through her usual routine, then takes care to squeeze out the last of the toothpaste when done brushing her teeth, dumps out the rest of the mouthwash, the facial cleanser she’ll never again need—She now, touched by the inescapable, teeming life of the City, embraces a fuck-it, last-day-on-earth attitude, and becomes, literally, a kid in a candy store. Opening and shutting clear plastic drawers full of gummies and assorted other sweets, She finally decides on a candy apple, tears into it, calories and clean teeth be damned.
But as much as we may relate to these last-minute preparations and jitters, we can only project what She must be thinking when the moment arrives for her to detonate the explosives via an innocuous MP3 player rigged to her yellow backpack. Does the vibrancy of the global gathering spot affect her? Does she take into account the various kindnesses and amusements visited upon her by random passersby, teenage girls giggling in the bathroom, the hip-hop-styled kid hitting on her? Does she struggle with the heartbreaking common humanity of those trustingly waiting next to her at the crosswalk (a crowd visually described by shots of hands engaged in routine activities—dialing numbers on a cell phone, wrangling iPod earbuds, clasping together, tenderly grasping someone else’s arm—as her own fingers grip and fiddle with the destructive device)?
Conjuring this mental impasse (how can she bring herself to do it?) may be the point: Even if we were privy to her entire biography, would our understanding of her motivations be any greater than now? No matter our subjective alignment with her, we cannot fathom pushing the button. This sits disconcertingly alongside Day Night Day Night’s narrative structure, which, given a long build-up and the expectation of orgasmic, explosive relief in action movies (experimental or not, the film has been priming us for this moment), has you almost wishing the bomb would go off. Loktev denies us this contradictory catharsis and leaves us, like our protagonist, in limbo, alone, confused, utterly fucked in an indeterminate universe: sensations too familiar in a post-9/11 world and harnessed with succinct lyricism in Day Night Day Night’s achingly perfect concluding shots.