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Artsy ‘Dark Night’ takes aim at shooting sprees, misses

Aaron Purvis plays one of the people destined for a mass shooting in “Dark Night.” | CINELICIOUS PICS

Nearly every scene in “Dark Night” reminds us the writer-director is a gifted stylist with an avant-garde artist’s knack for provoking.

And irritating.

And engaging in self-indulgence.

Even the title is a too clever-by-half play on words. Writer-director Tim Sutton’s fictional film directly references the mass murder committed in an Aurora, Colorado, theater, during a showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

The story itself is about a half-dozen Floridians in the hours before they will find themselves in a movie theater targeted by yet another gunman.

A theater showing a film called “The Dark Night.”

This is by no means the first drama focusing on individuals who have been devastated or are about to be rocked by shooting sprees. Gus van Sant’s 2003 minor masterpiece “Elephant,” clearly inspired by the Columbine tragedy, was one of the first. The mournful and unforgettable “Beautiful Boy” (2010) centered on the parents of a teenage shooter. In the little-seen but brilliant “Rudderless” (2014), Billy Crudup gave one of the best performances of the year as a father whose life crumbles after a mass shooting on campus.

“Dark Night” cannot match the aforementioned films for their depth, their insight — or their performances.

“Rudderless” (Crudup, Anton Yelchin, Felicity Huffman) and “Beautiful Boy” (Maria Bello, Michael Sheen) featured top-tier actors. Most of the actors in “Elephant” were unknowns, but Van Sant knows how to draw natural performances.

The non-professional actors in “Dark Night” aren’t asked to carry heavy loads of dialogue and emoting, but there’s still something amateurish in most of their performances. They seem self-conscious, even when acting out mundane tasks such as folding clothes in a store or posing for selfies.

Sutton’s moody camerawork does provide some jarring visuals. A teenage girl’s eyes reflect flashes of red and blue, and it could be fireworks or it could be police vehicles. The mere act of someone clicking on Google Street View images and seemingly staking out a location seems chilling. Teenage girls in a parking lot are immersed in their texting, oblivious to the skateboarder who zips by — a skateboarder that may or may not be a very-near-future killer.

Nearly everyone we meet is alone, even when they’re with other people. They’re isolated, they seem numb to the life around them and of course they’re all about cell phones and video games and some vague need to be noticed online, if not in the real world.

Many of Sutton’s haunting, nearly still images of characters are accompanied by the too-obvious wailings of Maica Armata on the soundtrack. Instead of building the tension, they only serve to heighten the lack of purpose.

To its credit, “Dark Night” does not exploit or glamorize the gun culture, nor does it attempt to hammer us over the head with social or political views.

Sutton is undeniably talented. Better, deeper, richer work is almost sure to follow.

★★

Cinelicious Pics presents a film written and directed by Tim Sutton. No MPAA rating. Running time: 85 minutes. Opens Friday at Facets Cinematheque.