What would it look like to prepare for your own death?
It's a question posited by writer/director Julia Loktev in her debut narrative feature, Day Night Day Night, about a young woman planning to blow herself to smithereens in the middle of Times Square.
A waifish 19-year-old (Luisa Williams) arrives at a bus station in New Jersey where she is picked up by a driver. He takes her to a motel room where she meets other members of this unnamed group, their faces obscured by black hoods. They provide the girl instructions, share a pizza and videotape her with a gun in front of a political poster. Eventually, she is given a backpack and a button to push to activate her payload.
Loktev's film is charged with the tense energy that comes from a maximum of visual information and a minimum of actual knowledge. The woman's motives remain mysterious. With her striking ink-black hair and olive complexion, she may be Middle Eastern, but not necessarily. There are hints that her mission is a religious one, but nothing definitive is offered. Providing no answers or explanations is clearly part of the director's point: We can never truly know or explain what would lead someone to such an act. But though it may be a satisfying conceptual gambit, the purposeful opaqueness of the story line feels too meticulously self-conscious.
Certainly a filmmaker to watch (and named so at the 2007 Independent Spirit Awards), in many ways Loktev delivers a beautifully executed but often thematically inert film that suggests a film-school project stretched to its conceptual limit. Loktev's idea has, of course, a timely and resonant "hook" in our own current political climate of suicide bombers and jihadist violence. But it is more in small moments, like the way Loktev focuses on the fragile human gestures of the crowd in Times Square – reading magazines, twirling a piece of hair, scratching, holding a tissue – that the filmmaker reveals something close to a point of view. At this moment, Loktev shows something delicate and poignant in the way the world in all of its variety and depth collides with the cruel absolutism of the suicide bomber.
Day Night Day Night. 3 stars. Directed by Julia Loktev. Stars Luisa Williams, Josh Phillip Weinstein, Gareth Saxe. Not rated. Opens Fri., June 1. At the Plaza Theatre.
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