We never learn the name of the 19-year-old woman who prepares to strap a bomb onto her back and blow herself up — along with much of Times Square — in “Day Night Day Night.”
We never learn where she’s from, what she believes, whom she works for or, most importantly of all, what could possibly drive her to such a drastic, destructive act.
That’s all intentional, of course. Writer-director Julia Loktev — who was born in Russia, raised in Colorado and lives in New York — isn’t interested in exploring the why so much as the what, with the hope that we’ll connect with the who. Or, as Loktev herself puts it in the film’s production notes, “There is a why, but the why is left outside the frame.”
It’s a brave choice that never really pays off.
Her star, newcomer Luisa Williams — labeled in the credits as “She” — has a fascinating face that can make her appear stoic one minute, startled the next. She’s dark and lean with strong cheekbones and large green eyes that flash with panic, with passion. She resembles a young Nastassja Kinski. (Before this, she was working as a nanny. Acting had never occurred to her.)
Williams makes us want to know more about her character; Loktev won’t budge. And because of that firm aesthetic decision, she makes it difficult for us to become as fully engrossed in “Day Night Day Night” as we’d like to be.
Instead, over 48 hours, Loktev runs through the mundane minutiae this young woman endures before her fateful trip to Manhattan. (The script was inspired by news details she’d read about other female suicide bombers.)
She has arrived in New Jersey by bus, gets picked up in a car by a man whose name she doesn’t know and is driven to a nondescript motel. There she kills time by taking a long bath, washing her socks and underwear, napping. When she dares to set foot on the balcony, even for a second, her cell phone rings and it’s one of the mission’s organizers, a man with no name watching and warning her to go back inside. Everyone involved speaks in unaccented English.
Shot on high-definition video, often in extreme close-ups, “Day Night Day Night” is, if nothing else, a marvel of restrained, minimalist filmmaking. The young woman says little, aside from occasionally whispering to herself something along the lines of, “I have only one death. I want my death to be for you.”
When three masked men come to her room to bring her the clothes they’ve chosen for her to wear and drill instructions into her head, she speaks only when spoken to and is exceedingly, unflaggingly polite — an unexpected trait that makes us long to understand her more.
The tension really starts to build once she’s brought, blindfolded, to a dark, hidden spot to receive the backpack she’ll wear on her mission. It weighs 50 pounds, she’s told, most of which is the nails. She insists, quietly, that she can handle more.
Once she arrives by bus at the Port Authority and begins walking around the claustrophobic crowd of Times Square, the pace picks up even more. We won’t even begin to reveal what happens; that wouldn’t be fair. We’ll just say that in an attempt to make a statement, Loktev has ended up with a whimper rather than a bang.