Three separate bloodbaths at Russian schools recently are all linked by the teenage attackers 'worshipping' the perpetrators of...
Thursday, August 17, 2017
When real-life horror inspires cinematic drama, the immediate question that’s brought to mind is whether its existence is at all appropriate. It’s a discussion that is typically helped by time.
The forthcoming adaptation of Derf Backderf’s graphic novelMy Friend Dahmer, which dramatises the upbringing and adolescence of one of the USA’s most prolific serial killers, is made less queasy because of the period in which it is set.
That Jeffrey Dahmer grew up in the 1970s, his crimes accessorised by bell-bottom jeans and 8-track tapes and therefore so removed from anything we recognise today, helps a dramatic interpretation of his killings come off as far less ghoulish than it could have been.
Tim Sutton’s docudramaDark Night is blessed with no such rose-tinted serial killer nostalgia, occupying a similar zone of vague inappropriateness as 2003’s Elephant, Gus Van Sant’s deliberately low-fi depiction of the Columbine Massacre, that was released just four years after two high school students murdered 13 of their classmates and teachers.
Dark Night, whether it’s morally right or not, dramatises the events leading up to the murders of 12 audience members at a midnight screening ofThe Dark Knight Risesin 2012 – a mass homicide perpetrated by a 24-year-old man named James Holmes and quickly nicknamed “The Batman Massacre” by the tabloids.
He is now serving 12 life sentences at a maximum security prison in Colorado, and Dark Night is the first feature film to explore the tragedy. Sort of, at least.
Sutton’s film, like Elephant before it, is intentionally devoid of much in the way of narrative, rather resembling a series of intimate snapshots of everyday lives, all of whom we know will ultimately intersect at 12.38am at Aurora, Colorado’s Century 16 cinema.
Performed by amateur actors working very loosely from Hutton’s script, Dark Night doesn’t introduce Holmes until about 40 minutes in, and refuses to depict any of his murders on-screen. We aren’t granted any particularly searing insight into his psychology, either. Potentially because so much of it has already been established.
The Aurora killings are relatively unique in the annals of American mass murder as its perpetrator neither took his own life nor was killed by police once they arrived on the scene. Found not to be legally insane, Holmes has explicitly articulated the driving forces that led him to commit violence.
He had also planned meticulously when it came to how he would enact his desires, deciding an airport heavily populated by armed security would be too tricky to navigate, that serial killing would leave him vulnerable to capture, and that blowing himself up wouldn’t be satisfactory – Holmes wasn’t suicidal.
Instead he chose a cinema, which satisfied his need for “maximum casualties”, while he knew the Century 16 movie theatre had a limited number of exits.
Twenty minutes into the opening night screening of The Dark Knight Rises, Holmes barricaded the doors to the room, tossed gas canisters into the audience to cloud their vision and fired indiscriminately into the crowd with three separate guns. After killing 12 and wounding 70, Holmes exited to the cinema’s car park, where he sat and waited for police to arrive.
“I think it’s wrong to kill children,” Holmes later stated, when told that he had killed a 6-year-old girl. “I chose to minimise child fatalities by choosing a midnight showing of a PG-13 movie. I felt sad that a child had died. It wasn’t my intention to kill children or leave them parentless.”
Holmes’s lucid thoughts and his ability to display rationality resulted in two court-appointed psychiatrists declaring him sane, though mentally ill. Found to be aware of what he was doing on the night of May 22, an early plea of insanity was rejected.
After a nearly three-month trial, jurors similarly rejected an attempt by Holmes’s lawyers to have them take into consideration his mental illness – deciding that it was not important enough a factor to overshadow the methodical planning of his crimes. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
It was that verdict that has also played into a strange cult that has emerged around Holmes a result – a subculture of fandom buried in the depths of Tumblr that acts as a millennial update on the stock cultural figure of the lonely woman sitting at home writing love letters to incarcerated murderers.
“I know people are going to think I’m f----- up,” one account writes, “but I bet he looked really hot in that ballistic gear.” Sites also feature poetry about Holmes, photographs in which he appears topless, and impassioned campaigns declaring why he ought to be released from prison.
Like that fandom, which seems to be driven by the idea that Holmes is mentally ill and therefore sad and vulnerable and subsequently sexy, Dark Night also attempts to humanise Holmes… but in its very literal definition of the word. The film’s version of Holmes isn’t more or less inconspicuous than his victims, all of whom are fictionalised, and it refuses to judge nor admonish any of his actions. He merely exists.
“I actually lost two possible financiers to this project because they demanded that I make the shooter character more typically evil — more Hollywood movie evil,” Tim Sutton toldi-D. “I can’t say I understand what evil is, and I’m not saying that any of these shooters are evil or not evil. What I do know is that many of them are troubled. Many of them are isolated. Many of them have problems with communication. Many of them are depressed. I’m not making excuses for them, but I do believe that all these shooters are just as human as the bystanders, and need to be treated like that on screen.”
That Holmes remains a semi-recurrent presence in the media, annually documented in increasingly bloated court appearances and obsessively trailed by a fringe group of internet fruitcakes, does grant Dark Night a queasy undertone. But in its own dreamy, narratively loose way, it never feels particularly exploitative. It’s ultimately a horror movie, but not the kind you’d imagine.
“I didn’t want it to be entertainment,” Hutton told Hollywood Soapbox earlier this year. “I wanted to make the movie about life, about how people live their lives. No matter how boring… how mundane… how isolated or strained or fun or goofy or whatever. I wanted that morning, noon, sunset, night to be about people and, in retrospect, about the fragility of those lives.”