As anyone who saw Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now — and listened to its prospective suicide bombers spout Palestinian talking points as rationales for their imminent self-detonation — can tell you, the urge to understand an inexplicable act is natural and commendable, but any ex post facto explanations are bound to be acts of projection. So if writer-director Julia Loktev’s debut microindie Day Night Day Night presents the most convincing cinematic suicide bomber yet seen outside of martyr videos, it’s because no motives are posited, or ideological affiliations offered. Loktev works from the outside in; the How is the Why.
The bomber in question is an unnamed, ethnically ambiguous 19-year-old girl with mousy hair, doe eyes, and a rabbity voice (the actress is uncanny first-timer Luisa Williams). For the first day and night, she holes up in a spartan Jersey motel, where she and her (male, masked) handlers prepare; Loktev shoots in tight close-up, emphasizing automatic gestures (the girl bathes, brushes teeth, throws toothbrush away). The process is opaque — the girl’s hands may shake, but excepting a few vague prayers her interior monologue stays where it is — but the end result seems plausible precisely because the intermediate steps are grounded in specific physical (largely banal, occasionally absurd) reality.
In the second day and night, the girl arrives at her ground zero, Times Square. Here the close coverage bleeds into a chilling verité thrum: the real-life obliviousness of the passersby to another handheld digicam becomes, in the movie’s context, a too-perfect approximation of obliviousness to a dark-haired girl with a heavy backpack. If Loktev’s delay fuse-rigged climax is finally exhausting, it’s perhaps because nerves have already been rubbed thoroughly raw.