Written & Directed by: Julia Loktev
A little ways into Day Night Day Night our nameless protagonist, who from here on in I shall refer to as "Green Eyes" (Luisa Williams), is alone in a motel room, waiting for a phone call. To pass the time (next time bring a magazine) she starts toying with the bedside lamp, flipping its power switch off and on and causing the screen to alternate between brightness and total darkness. Day, night, day, night...the scene serves to briefly exemplify the film's primary, underlying oppositional forces: day vs. night, one set of daynight vs. another set of daynight, but, most importantly, the seeming contradiction between being a charming ingénue and a budding suicide bomber.
Green Eyes, the audience comes to slowly realize (if, unfortunately, they haven't read any reviews or seen any trailers) is preparing to detonate a bomb in a presumable act of terrorism, though it isn't spelled out as such; when Day Night Day Night opens, she's cataloguing, in a soft whisper and lightning succession, the various manners in which people die—different diseases and types of accidents—before she declares, "I have only one death and I want my death to be for you." I looked around the nearly empty theater. Who, me? Honey, don't.
But honestly she may have meant me, because there's no indication that she means anybody else; Loktev expressly elides any mention or explanation of the characters' motivations, and every character speaks in an uninflected, Northern-American accent (i.e. they're not clearly Muslim or Middle Eastern, stripping the film of any easy politics.) Green Eyes disembarks from a bus in what we later learn is New Jersey, where she gets a phone call from a deep and anonymous voice (Josh P. Weinstein), giving her instructions as to where to go. She is shuttled by an Asian man (Tschi Hun Kim) to a motel, where she waits alone for quite a while. She cleans herself meticulously, and the soundtrack is piercing, transforming the clipping of toenails into aural Q-tip jabs. In due time her handlers, a handful of men in sinister skimasks, arrive to prep her for her mission. If anything, Day Night Day Night is a deromanticization of suicide bombing, at least its preparatory aspects, exposing them for what they are—relentlessly repetitive and banal, although the film manages to make them more absorbing than they have any right to be. They grill her on the details of the false identity with which they've provided her for what seems like two whole reels, and when filming her video (all suicide bombers have a video) it is a long process of trivial selections: hair up or down? Which jacket? Which background?
Some of these scenes are actually pretty funny, as is an awkward, de facto fashion show Green Eyes puts on, as she tries on various outfits for her handlers—which one is best for her big day? But no one in the theater was laughing, probably because the film has an otherwise grim tone and is too cryptic for an audience to be sure whether laughing at such a film among strangers would be OK; not to mention I was in downtown New York, where suicide bomber comedies are still something of a taboo.
What's so striking about Green Eyes is what a darling she is, and Loktev's debut feature is essentially an experiment in the problematic nature of cinematic identification, using the close-up to establish an intimate connection between audience and star, regardless of her diegetic intentions. It's manipulative, sure, but successful—Green Eyes is endearingly dopey, as she has difficulties using chopsticks or the motel shower; when she picks up a pair of handcuffs, it's only moments before she's clumsily dropped them. She's also exceedingly polite, always apologizing and saying "thank you" to her handlers like an obsequious prostitute; she even asks them to share in her pizza pie, one of many last suppers she enjoys throughout the film. In tight close-up, the camera often just lingers on her face, which gradually softens throughout the film from a tight puss to a soft pie. Loktev and Williams implicate the viewer in the crime she is about to commit by making her character so easy to love. Prepare to grow accustomed to her face.
Loktev employs nearly only close-ups, particularly once she switches locales (more on that in a moment), and Williams has the acting fortitude to match it, endlessly delivering what Béla Balázs called "silent soliloquies" while the tension slowly accrues. While it immediately recalls Lodge Kerrigan's Keane from two years ago—another creepy New York movie told in tight close-up—Williams' face and the way Loktev shoots it brings to mind Falconetti, and the filmmakers clearly mean to draw a mild comparison between her apparent martyrdom and that of Jeanne d'Arc.
Up to about the middle of the movie, Green Eyes keeps behaving as though it's only just any other day; in the morning she uses mouthwash, applies face cream, but the silliness of the preparatory rote is overruled by melancholy finality, as she squeezes or spills each bottle's excess content into the sink before tossing each item into the trashbin. But it's only when her handler describes the pain to come—"it'll be over so fast you won't see or hear anything"—that it, for the first time, becomes achingly clear that she's about to explode herself. And it's a gutwrenching realization.
But alas, as passive viewer I have no say in the matter, though by now I'm thoroughly invested; she is soon fitted with a bomb-filled backpack, weighing in at fifty pounds. "Most of weight's in the nails," she's told, and she courteously replies that they can put more in if they'd like, a suggestion that titillates the deaf bombmaker. (Maybe she's not so nice after all? And yet the viewer inexplicably, like a supportive parent, starts to root for her to succeed in whatever she chooses to do.) She then gets on a bus and debarks at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan, a short walk from Times Square, her (it becomes clear) intended target.
Look, I'm well aware of a Midtown, tourist-related congestion problem, and I don't care for much of what's playing on Broadway these days, but I'm not sure that bombs are the answer. (Guerilla criticism?) Wandering the streets, looking as lost as little Richie Andrusco in Coney Island in The Little Fugitive, she spends the day buying snacks: a candy apple, two pretzels soaked in mustard, a tomato slice, etc., repeatedly treating herself to one last bite to eat. All the New Yorkers are remarkably kind to her, providing accurate directions, helping her up when she falls down and, in a restroom, advising her not to use a particular toilet because it doesn't flush. There's even a hilarious scene in which she gets hit on by an aggressive suitor, who compliments her: "you got pretty green eyes and shit." It's true, baby; whatcha gonna blow yaself up for?
But all the kindness makes her mission all the more menacing, and the scene in which she stands at a busy street corner and prepares to detonate, fingering her activation switch, is excruciatingly tense, as the soundtrack disappears save for her heavy breathing, and the camera slowly cuts to close-ups of the unaware New Yorkers. (Loktev is adept at creating tension, as in another scene in which Green Eyes waits at a long red light and the beat of a neighboring car's turn signal provides an unbearable tick tock tick tock.)
(spoiler warning) By the end, what should be a horrifying tale of homicidal intent turns into a pitiable story of personal failure; her bomb winds up to be a dud and, not having any method of getting in touch with her handlers, she winds up as just one more lonely transplant who came to New York to make a name for herself and didn't. When her second attempt to detonate the bomb fails, there's a real sense of disappointment in her and in the audience. "Why don't you want me?" she enigmatically asks, sounding like the Salieri of suicide bombers, and in turn an indifferent New York City looks back at her dispassionately. (/spoilers)
Day Night Day Night and its central character ought to be repugnant, but instead they're sympathetic and brimming with pathos. There's something van Sant-esque about its refusal to provide us any causes, acknowledging only effects. Suicide bombers, however abhorrent, are people too, full of contradictions, and the movie, a complicated character study, ferrets out Green Eyes' goodness, almost sweeping her malicious intentions under the rug and out of the way. Irresponsible, maybe, but it's still gripping and fascinating filmmaking.