Holy Terror

'Day Night Day Night' is a painful and overwhelming piece of cinematic art

The nice thing about terrorism is that we can all agree that it's wrong. Well, all of us except the terrorists. They seem to be in favor of it.

So getting inside the mind of a terrorist seems especially difficult, what with them thinking that blowing people up is a good idea, and the rest of us pooh-poohing such notions as a bit old-fashioned and also unbearably horrifying and stupid.

Director Julia Loktev takes an interesting tack on this, following a young woman in the 48 hours leading up to her scheduled suicide bombing in Times Square. The film begins with the youthful and unnamed lead riding a bus as she recites a list of all the ways people can die. At the end, when she's run down the litany of cancers and accidents and slow destructions that end all of our lives, she adds, 'But I have made up my mind to die for you," with "you" being (presumably) God.

And yet, in spite of her unfortunate dedication to the whole God-wants-me-to-blow-up-innocent-people thing, she's not a completely unsympathetic character. I mean, sure, you're hoping that she fails in her mission and gets caught and goes to jail and turns in all of her accomplices and spends the rest of her days rotting away in a dank prison cell, but you still kind of like her.

Loktev manages this feat, and adds a tremendous amount of tension, by focusing on the minutiae and boredom of the two days prior to the terrorist act. We see the young woman eat some noodles, check into a hotel room, wash her underpants and generally do all of the things you do when you are killing time before committing some sort of atrocity.

She even shaves her underarms, so that, I assume, when the police find her underarm six or seven yards from her head, it's not all gross and stubbly. Or perhaps all the ablutions are designed to make her clean in the eyes of God before she gets all dirty with her own and other people's innards.

But beyond scrubbing herself clean for God, the young woman, who appears to be about 17 years old, has little to occupy herself. Her handlers have told her not to leave her sterile hotel room, so she clicks the lights on and off, plays with the appliances and then bounces on the bed like a little girl.

It's a nice touch, and it brings home the strange immaturity of her act. Luisa Williams, who plays the terrorist, is excellent in the role. She's strangely reminiscent of Holden Caulfield, justifying all her actions with mumbled monologues and trying very hard to do the right thing, or at least produce a decent excuse for the wrong thing she's doing.

But mostly, she's weirdly polite, frequently thanking her masked handlers as they take all her belongings, photograph her for posterity and strap a bomb on her back. She's even polite to the very people she's about to murder. Having her seem so kind and meek is far more terrifying than portraying her as a twisted psychopath, and this creates a tension that's at times almost unbearable.

Loktev is really a master at this sort of thing. Her wisest move may be the complete absence of a musical soundtrack. Instead, she close-mics the breathing, chewing and paper-crumpling of the terrorist's every action, until the wet smack and hard crunch of a candy apple being eaten becomes a sick and ominous sound.

The sound design is so thoughtful, it's a wonder that most directors don't have this kind of skill, instead relying on throbbing bass lines and violin noises to get effects that should come naturally out of a scene.

The only downside to Day Night Day Night is that, in order to produce her effect, Loktev has to spend a lot of time building up to the anticipated scene, and some of this gets, if not dull, perhaps overly oppressive, so that you find yourself wishing she'd just get on with it.

But when the scene shifts to Times Square, the intensity ratchets up to 11, and the final half hour is relentless genius. I can't say that this is a film for everyone, but if you're interested in what can be done when--instead of relying on cash and a bag full of standardized effects--someone breaks down the art of film and finds its most basic elements, Day Night Day Night could serve as a case study.

It's also one of the few films to deal effectively with terrorism without falling into the twin traps of justifying the action or simply dehumanizing the criminals. Instead, Loktev makes it clear how someone in a desperate state, and sotted with an irrational but seemingly pious belief, can do virtually anything. Even worse, she shows how such a person could be virtually anyone. It's painful and occasionally overwhelming, but as an act of cinematic art, it is beyond reproach.

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