Julia Loktev's debut feature, Day Night Day Night, sits on an increasingly crowded shelf of books, movies, magazine articles, and documentaries that attempt to delve into the world of the suicide bomber. Luisa Williams plays a nondescript, ethnically ambiguous young woman who buses into New Jersey, spends a day in a motel room getting grilled by black-masked, American-accented "handlers," and then is deposited in Times Square with a backpack full of explosives. Loktev intentionally gives no indication of Williams' terrorist cause or her origins. She just holds the camera tight on her face and immediate surroundings, aiming to build tension from the ordinariness of the 48 hours leading up to a moment of truth.
It's an effective strategy, but only to a degree. Unless viewers know in advance what the movie's about, endless shots of Williams eating junk food or struggling with her hotel room's patio door won't amount to much more than a mildly compelling study of human behavior. And even when viewers do know what's going on, those little fumbly moments are way too fraught with irony. (Huh. She puts deodorant on before she goes bombing. And she helps an old lady off the bus. Well, what do you know?) By the time Williams arrives at the moment where she has to decide whether to push the button, the tension may be genuine, but so is the frustration over having been manipulated and distracted by the preponderance of coy "humanizing" touches.
And ultimately, just as the "last day on Earth" context gives scenes of nothingness more theoretical weight, so it also works against Loktev's attempt to make a suicide-bombing thriller devoid of politics. Day Night Day Night "works" as a suspense film, but it's hard not to see the ghosts of al-Qaeda mug shots and Cho Seung-Hui's self-portraits when Williams poses for her pre-bombing photo. Loktev's efforts to universalize this story by avoiding specifics ends up making Day Night Day Night broad and blank, reducing the lead character to one more generic nutcase for us to fear and pity. And isn't the anonymity of bombers precisely the problem?