Learning to Empathize With a Suicide Bomber (Published 2007) – The New York Times

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Movie Review | 'Day Night Day Night'

To study the unsettled emotional weather on the face of Luisa Williams, the intense, dark-eyed star of “Day Night Day Night,” is to be reminded of Norma Desmond’s famous boast, “We had faces then.”
For most of its 94 minutes, this gripping minimalist portrait of an unidentified 19-year-old suicide bomber planning to blow up Times Square focuses on Ms. Williams’s face. Determination, rage, uncertainty, bravado, modesty and panic are among the feelings that flicker over her slightly feral features.
The star she most resembles is the young Sandra Bernhard, but a more delicate version, minus Ms. Bernhard’s aura of curdled meanness and suppressed hysteria. Ethnically indistinct, her background could be Middle Eastern, Russian, Mediterranean or Latin American. Whatever her ancestry (Ms. Williams is a native New Yorker making her screen debut), she has a face you’ll never forget.
How much of “Day Night Day Night” you choose to remember, however, is another matter. It depends on your tolerance for high- concept stunts. The movie, written and directed by Julia Loktev, may be serious, and it certainly is sure of itself. But it is also maddeningly, purposefully evasive. It wants to imprison you in a terrorist mind-set and play cat-and-mouse games with your hopes and expectations. At moments, it suggests Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant,” but observed from the sole perspective of the shooters in that movie’s Columbine-like massacre.
Because no details are given or motives offered, “Day Not Day Night” is ostensibly apolitical. But the deliberate withholding of a political agenda in a movie about a suicide bomber has unavoidable political implications. It suggests that the motives matter less than the self- destructive act itself. The more you identify with Ms. Williams’s character, the more deeply you are implicated in her decision. And early on, the movie lets you know she has serious misgivings. Out loud and more than once, this scowling little Joan of Arc asks herself if she is doing it for the right reasons.
Ms. Williams’s character and most of the people in the organization preparing her for her mission speak uninflected Northeastern American English. Most are anonymous men who wear black masks as they drill her in a shabby New Jersey motel room. A ritual cleansing is carried out. Outfits are tried on and discarded. A fake identity is memorized. She is eventually led blindfolded from the motel to a secret location, where a yellow backpack containing explosives is strapped on her shoulders, and she is instructed how to activate the bomb.
The movie is divided into two parts: preparation and action. The visually drab first part, set in the motel room, ticks along ominously like a slowed-up metronome. Emotions are stifled as the preparations unfold with grim deliberation. Once she has left her collaborators and entered Manhattan at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the chaos of the city intrudes, and she is jostled like the hand-held camera that follows her along 42nd Street to Seventh Avenue.
Colors intensify, the soundtrack is abrasively jangling and you study the faces of the pedestrians crowding the streets. The claustrophobic sense of the city closing in around her is excruciating, as is your horrified realization that these innocent people have no idea they’re in imminent danger.
When she decides to use a pay phone and is forced to beg for change, you share her scary sense of being lost in a crowd. The most dramatic moment, aside from her mission, is a scene in which a cocky young man (Richard Morant) tries to pick her up and goes so far as to pull up his shirt to show her his toned body. She tries to ignore him, but he is so persistent and increasingly hostile that you sense him as a possibly serious threat.
This scene, in which she appears vulnerable, and a later moment when she makes a collect cross- country phone call to her parents, who sound like a typical concerned middle-class mom and dad, are shrewd humanizing touches that trick you into caring about her.
“Day Night Day Night,” like “Paradise Now,” the 2005 film about the recruitment and training of two Palestinian suicide bombers, teases you up to the last second as to the outcome. Its tensions are manipulated so skillfully that early on you become aware of your identification with her and conscious of the degree to which you want her succeed in her mission.
Isn’t that what the movies do? Unless they go out of their way to make you despise the major characters, you tend to root for their success, no matter how mad and sociopathic their behavior. That may be the moral lesson of “Day Night Day Night.” It draws you in enough to make you feel strangely culpable.
Opens today in Manhattan, also on Video on Demand.
Written and directed by Julia Loktev; director of photography, Benoit Debie; edited by Ms. Loktev and Michael Taylor; production designer, Kelly McGehee; sound designer, Leslie Shatz; costume designer, Rabiah Troncelliti; produced by Ms. Loktev, Melanie Judd and Jessica Levin; released by IFC First Take. At the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas, at Third Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 94 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Luisa Williams (She), Josh P. Weinstein (Commander), Gareth Saxe (Organizer), Nyambi Nyambi (Organizer), Frank Dattolo (Bombmaker), Annemarie Lawless (Bombmaker’s Assistant), Tschi-Hun Kim (Driver) and Richard Morant (Flirt).
A listing of credits on Wednesday with a film review of “Day Night Day Night” included incorrect information from the film’s distributor about several people who worked on the movie. Benoit Debie was the sole director of photography; he was not joined by Michael Taylor. The editors were Julie Loktev and Mr. Taylor — not Ms. Lotkev and Leslie Shatz, who was the sound designer. The production designer was Kelly McGehee — not Rabiah Troncelliti, who was the costume designer.
A listing of credits last Wednesday with a film review of “Day Night Day Night” included incorrect information from the film’s distributor about several people who worked on the movie, and a correction in this space on Monday misstated the given name of one of the film’s editors and misspelled her surname at one point. She is Julia Loktev, not Julie Lotkev. (Others working on the movie: Benoit Debie was the sole director of photography; he was not joined by Michael Taylor, who was an editor along with Ms. Loktev. Leslie Shatz was the sound designer, not an editor. And the production designer was Kelly McGehee — not Rabiah Troncelliti, who was the costume designer.)
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