The specter of American violence in "Dark Night"

Tim Sutton's story of suburban alienation screens at the 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival.

This review is part of our preview coverage of the 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival.

The superficially sunny coastal suburbia of Sarasota, Florida, provides the backdrop for Tim Sutton's third film, which delves into the predominantly millennial psyche. While numerous features and documentaries have attempted to unpack systemic gun violence in America since the turn of the century, Dark Night, which premieres in Madison as part of the 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival (Sat, Apr 1, at 9:00p), bridges the divide between fiction and verisimilitude. In temperately studying a diverse set of characters and their motives, the film recalls the 2012 mass movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado (as momentarily glimpsed on the corner of a CNN report), through the lens of an impending a copycat event.

Rather than offering precisely outlined explanations of root causes, Dark Night spiritually complements Gus Van Sant's Elephant (2003), which reflects upon the Columbine massacre in similarly dizzying, elliptical character portraits whose characters struggle with self-image and greater ambition in equal measure. There's the pale computer gamer/social outcast, Aaron (Aaron Purvis), who's joined by his mother for an interview about a traumatic event at school; an uncommunicative couple in counseling whose veteran husband devotes more effort to caring for his arsenal than his marriage; a screen-addicted female vlogger desperately trying to capture new subscribers; skaters who frequent the local waterside skatepark; a reticent Hispanic teen who works in retail; and the scheming and restless recluse, Robert (Robert Jumper), whose stare penetrates every scene.

By the end of Dark Night, Sutton daringly implicates the audience in suggesting how certain convention has reinforced passivity, which has subsequently lulled us into accepting the ever-changing face of "normal." Warning signs of violent tragedy are brushed off, because we're not actively aware of our manufactured insularity. And indeed, this psychological intensity is a challenge to expound. Before escalating to the film to a fever pitch, Sutton gently approaches it all in abstract, threading half a dozen vignettes in an anthology style, previewed with an aerial drone shot of perfectly square, interchangeably tan roofs in the small metropolis just south of Tampa.

With persistent use of extreme close-ups, cinematographer Hélène Louvart establishes profoundly sharp visual motifs with extreme close-ups that transcend singular moments, whether through the human pose, mirror/glass reflections, color schemes, or unusual camera angles. While Dark Night uses occasional slow-motion, it isn't a particularly surreal cinematic experience, yet its sentiment here is almost an attempt to reorient our way of perceiving associations in the world as in poet Bi Gan's debut film Kaili Blues (2015). Despite the cultural differences, the overarching intent seems to be to highlight our physical presences and points of connection. We exist in a community sadly unbeknownst to one another.

The intermittent folk noir/slowcore of Scout Niblett soundalike Maica Armata provides further subtext and underlying narration to this density. Armata's restrained guitar strumming and smoky croon, which Sutton calls "a mantra, a prayer, and dark cloud all at once," initially seem to ring out without warning, but they are attentively cued amidst alarming scenes that involve the seething frustration of men, and their inability to find healthy outlets of expression.

So much of Dark Night is contained in body language and micro-behaviors, which we're all exposed to in daily interactions. With Aaron and Robert, two of the only explicitly named characters in the film, the aim is to at once provide insight into their deteriorating mental state and distortions of reality with a tone that is critical and yet sympathetic. Dark Night may not provide clear-cut solutions to any of the subjects it introduces, but it remains a thought-provoking survey of a very contemporary predicament.