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By Rick Kisonak | July 12, 2007

For 94 mesmerizing, narratively minimalist minutes Russian born filmmaker Julia Loktev pushes post 9-11 buttons. The result is a masterfully crafted exercise in dread unlike anything you’re likely to have seen before. If you’ve seen “Paradise Now,” you may think you’ve been down this road but “Day Night Day Night” takes the viewer, believe me, down an altogether different dead end street.

Like Hany Abu-Assad’s 2005 film, Loktev’s concerns the modern day phenomenon of the suicide bomber. Where the former offered a study of two Palestinian men and rooted their motivation in the geopolitical history of the region, however, “Day Night Day Night” follows a nameless young American woman as she prepares to make a bloody sacrifice in the middle of Times Square.

Luisa Williams (in real life a Brooklyn video store clerk) turns in a transfixing performance. The script has relatively little dialogue but she communicates volumes with her eyes. The character she plays is provided with virtually no context. She arrives by bus from the west coast and is driven to a nondescript New Jersey motel where she awaits instructions from her handlers. In time a group of hooded men–apparently also American–arrive and oversee her programming. They grill her relentlessly on the rules she must follow (“If I think that I’ve been noticed or there’s a small chance that I may be caught, I must execute the plan immediately even if there is no one nearby”). They force her to repeat over and over the fake name, birthdate and address they’ve supplied. They take away much of her cash and all of her credit cards. Should she have second thoughts when the time comes, getting out of town will appear a less than viable option.

The first half of the movie concludes with her trying on the backpack that has been custom made for her. “It’s about fifty pounds,” she’s informed. “Is it too heavy?” “No, you can put in more nails.”

The second half follows her as she makes her way on foot from Port Authority to Times Square. “Today is the day of our meeting,” she silently notes as part of an ongoing one-way conversation with her god. As she nears the destination, fear and doubt come close to overwhelming her. She wets herself and rushes into a restaurant bathroom to clean up. It’s the first of several stages in her mission at which the viewer is given reason for hope that she’ll change her mind. Moments later, having collected herself, she’s back on the crowded thoroughfare.

The director does a very clever thing. She shoots the woman’s death march on digital video amid throngs of ordinary New Yorkers. They have no more idea they’re in a movie about a suicide bomber than the story’s masses have that they’re in danger of being blown to bits at any moment. The fact that these are real people and not movie extras makes the prospect of the murderous act all the more horrific. If your knuckles aren’t white by the final sequence, the person sitting next to you should definitely check for a pulse.

“Day Night Day Night” is filled with fleeting images of and references to many of our age’s most distasteful new touchpoints: terrorist cells, martyr videos, improvised explosive devices, anti-American feeling, religious fanaticism and the like. Loktev never provides more than the sketchiest of hints as to who these people are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Sadly, she doesn’t need to. It’s all too easy at this point for the viewer to fill in the blanks.

It’s difficult to say what category of film this belongs in. It feels like a documentary but isn’t one. Is it a drama? I don’t know that you can call it a drama when characters are stripped of personalities, dialogue is all but nonexistent and there isn’t so much a central conflict as a looming atrocity. I suppose the genre it’s closest to is horror. Viewed in that light, it is a new and highly effective species. As savage and deranged as the villains may be in something like “Hostel: Part II,” they’re less terrifying than this picture’s anonymous young American. When you walk out of the theater and onto the street, you can rest assured you’ve left them behind. On the other hand, she could be walking right next to you.

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