You won’t see many films like this one. Probably most people will go their whole life seeing zero films very like this one. I’m not even sure what to call the style. “Minimalist realism” perhaps?
It’s a style marked by long periods of silence, very close attention to seemingly mundane details, and a lack of the conventional accouterments we’re used to in mainstream movies, such as music.
The film follows a young woman (Luisa Williams) through about a day and a half, from arrival in the New York area, through her mission the next day. She is a suicide bomber.
We see her being driven to a motel, briefed on her mission by the masked figures she meets there, loaded up with explosives, and moving into position where she is to detonate herself. In between are many long sequences of eating, brushing her teeth, getting dressed and undressed, etc. Some viewers will likely find such scenes excruciating, but for the most part this wasn’t a difficult movie for me to sit through. The enormity of the event that was hanging over it all gave it a real intensity, even when she was doing the most ordinary things. Just like in one’s own life when something truly big is happening or about to happen. The day you get married, or are told you have AIDS, or intend to commit suicide are days of extreme focus, where you are alive to everything, where there can be a peculiar deliberateness and self-consciousness to all that you do.
Filmmaker Julia Loktev made an interesting decision to provide basically no context for the suicide bombing. The characters don’t talk about why she’s doing what she’s doing. We don’t see her or hear anything about her before her arrival in New York. We know nothing of the ideology of any of these people.
That’s in contrast to a film like 2005’s Paradise Now, which is a fascinating and thought-provoking treatment of Palestinian suicide bombers. In that movie, there is much talk about the grievances of the Palestinians, details are provided about the personal, familial motivations of those who volunteer to be suicide bombers, characters debate violent versus nonviolent means, etc. Day Night Day Night is bereft of any of that.
The very lack of such information makes one all the more alert to any little clues that might slip through. The girl looks like a fairly dark skinned Caucasian, so maybe Persian or Eastern European or something like that, but the others appear to be of greatly varied ethnicities. Most or all of them speak English like they are native-born Americans. A couple of times they sit in a solemn pose that seems to be some kind of prayer or meditation, but not discernibly-at least not to me-of any specific religion. When alone she occasionally mutters things like “They’ll think I’m doing this for you, but I’m really doing it for my own reasons,” which made me think this was some sort of a cult-type thing with a charismatic leader she had received orders from, though it’s also possible she is addressing God, or maybe someone whose death she is avenging, or I suppose any number of other possibilities.
So not a whole lot to go on.
In a way, the mystery keeps you more engrossed in the film, trying to figure things out, but ultimately I don’t know if it’s a strength or a weakness. With a movie like Paradise Now, you’re given a lot to contemplate as far as why people do what they do, the sociopolitical ramifications of it all, and so on. But with this film, what are you really supposed to think or talk about when it’s over? Someone we don’t know, for a reason we’re not given, decides to be a suicide bomber. OK, so what do we do with that?
I’d raise the same concern with the very detailed treatment of her last day and a half. If this were a documentary, or if it were closely based on actual cases, then it could be fascinating to see how such things play out. But it’s not. It’s a totally fictitious case with no context. So it’s not like we can say after watching it that now we have more insight into suicide bombers.
For instance, she’s depicted doing a lot of things you’d think maybe somebody about to die wouldn’t bother with, like clipping her toenails, and brushing her teeth multiple times. If that were because the filmmaker had done extensive research and discovered that suicide bombers typically stick to their grooming routines like that to the end (assuming such information is somehow even available), then that could be a psychologically intriguing little tidbit to speculate about. But there’s no implication that there is any such evidentiary foundation for what is presented here. And since there are no groups of indigenous Americans who have carried out numerous terrorist actions like this one, any such implications of typicality would have to be based on cases of arguable relevance anyway.
Similarly, the terrorists in this movie speak in a very even tone, they’re very businesslike, they’re almost exaggeratedly polite. (There are as many “pleases” and “thank yous” as you’ll likely hear in any movie.) Almost everything in the preparation stage has an air of ultra-efficiency, painstaking attention to detail, and military precision. On the other hand, the mission itself is something of a mess, as she takes a bus (that she almost misses) back into New York, has to ask directions to even find where she’s going, etc. Once she gets close to where she is supposed to detonate herself, she is visibly extremely nervous-shaking, sweating, wetting herself, and so on.
But can we learn from any of that what suicide bombing is like? Presumably not. Maybe suicide bombers in the real world behave like that; maybe they don’t. By stripping away all political, social, or religious context, while giving us no reason to think the individual or group psychological elements it depicts bear any resemblance to anything in the real world, the film forfeits the chance to help us better understand suicide bombing
These artistic decisions may well have made it more watchable as a movie-more intense, more mysterious, more portentous-but in the process they may also have stripped it of any deeper purpose beyond keeping people on the edge of their seats.
It does have a real tension to it though, especially the second day when she’s wandering around Times Square. (She sure eats a lot, by the way. That’s another thing that may or may not reflect the behavior of real suicide bombers. Is there something about the nearness of suicide that makes you ravenously hungry?) For one thing, there’s suspense about whether she’ll be able to bring herself to go through with her mission.
Reviews I read before seeing the movie described her as wrestling with her conscience as she sees all the people around her that she’ll be killing. I actually didn’t read her nervousness that way when I saw the film. She mostly is looking down or looking blankly in the distance, lost in her own contemplative world, not looking at or interacting with anyone beyond what’s minimally necessary. I thought her focus was on herself, and that she was hesitating more at the enormity of suicide than at the enormity of murder.
A film this unusual is worth seeing, though I can give it only a mixed review. I found it frequently engrossing, and I’m impressed at the way it established and sustained a certain mood, though I wonder if there’s ultimately much point to it. But I’d have to think different people would react very differently to it. I could see people getting even more than I did out of it, or hating it.