Sunday, May 13, 2007

Day Night Day Night

A matter-of-fact presentation of the terrorist act, Julia Loktev's Day Night Day Night follows an unnamed young woman as she prepares to detonate a nail bomb planted in her backpack in the middle of Times Square. The first half of the film focuses on the minutiae of her preparations, offsetting the seriousness of the impending act with the banality of the prelude. Sequestered in a New Jersey hotel room with the shades tightly drawn, the woman (Luisa Williams) bathes, cuts her nails and brushes her teeth. Eventually three men clad in hoods arrive and drill her on the fine points of the operation, but even these questions of procedure are interrupted by the mundane as the woman stops to eat a pizza. Eventually satisfied with her responses, the men leave and she is driven to a warehouse where she's equipped with a bomb before making her way to Manhattan.

Loktev wisely eschews any specific details about the organization or their motives. Such information is beside the point. In the hotel room, the woman, toting a gun and wearing a clip, appears in a video that supposedly explains the group's ideology. Loktev spends several minutes filming the men setting up the video, outfitting the woman, adjusting the gun, changing the background. When the men's cameras start rolling, however, Loktev ends the scene, leaving the nature of the cause intentionally vague. What matters is the personal commitment shown by the woman. Seen conversing with an unnamed God, she has clear intentions of meeting her deity face to face. Whatever the cause, it is one in which the woman not only believes, but from which she expects to receive, if not some kind of divine reward, at least some recognition from her God. Soft-spoken and unfailingly polite, the woman may seem like an unlikely terrorist, but her divine beliefs, vague as they are, compel her to action.

Luisa Williams, a screen newcomer, acquits herself admirably. As unemphatic as her verbal expression is, she makes up for it with her face. All angles, high cheekbones and sunken cheeks, her face is unusually expressive. By turns steadfast, confused and terrified, Williams stands out amid the blur of Loktev's hectic hand-held camera. When she first enters the bustle of Times Square after the calm of a day spent in a quiet hotel room, she captures the confusion of a woman who has never been around that many people before. As she acclimates herself to her new environment, greedily devouring junk food and working up the courage to consummate the act, Williams imbues the unnamed terrorist with a child-like vulnerability that doesn't obscure her marked determination. While her characterization is intentionally sketchy, the actress fills the sketch with a disarming sensitivity and enough low-key charm to skewer audience expectations and complicate the viewer's sympathies.

The woman's entrance to Times Square is deftly handled by Loktev. Her handheld camera captures the sheer mass of people as they pass by a bewildered Williams, while picking out individual details, such as a couple holding hands or a man scratching his head. The audio catches the variety of sounds that assault Williams' ears, snippets of conversations picked up, the hawk of street vendors. Up to this point, the film had been relatively quiet, with no more than a single voice heard at a time. More jarring than the visual component is the sudden onslaught of multiple voices. As the scene progresses and Williams comes closer to pushing the button, the film takes on the tension of a thriller. The banality of the picture's first half which downplayed the horror of the act, gives way to the gravity of the second, when the actual undertaking can no longer be avoided even as Loktev continues her verisimilitudinous treatment of the material. By seeing the act through the point of view of a shy, polite, but determined young woman, the audience is forced to contemplate the actual process of detonation not as the abstract machinations of a terrorist, but as an immediate action of a scared young woman. While this is hardly a revelatory proposition, it is handled with great skill and surprising warmth by the young director. The film may offer no great insights into the mind of the terrorist, but this is not what it's after. Instead, it adroitly presents the banality of the process that underlies the horror of the act, offering something new to the post-9/11 artistic exploration of terrorism.

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