A mom (Dominique McElligott) and her daughter (Alexis Durabrow) are on a leisurely ride across empty, rolling country. The good times are shattered when Mom turns a blind corner and crashes into a deer in the road. The collision sends the van off the road and down into a field where it comes to rest upside down. They’ve both miraculously survived, but Mom is trapped in the driver’s seat. For hours they remain stuck in the van, Mom vainly calling for help. As dusk comes on, two figures stride across the field: two boys (Trenton Kaiser, Robert Homyak) in coveralls, strangely silent and blank-faced. They cut the daughter loose from her car seat and lead her off across the field, leaving the mom behind calling after her. The mother finally manages to pull herself free of the wreck. One of the boys reappears. When she asks after her daughter, he drops a shoe near her outstretched hand. He opens his mouth, but there’s no sound, then he turns and walks back the way he came, into the night, leaving the injured woman alone with her daughter’s shoe, sobbing.
It’s a disturbing, frustratingly opaque, arbitrarily creepy piece, but assembled in high fashion as one might expect of the pedigreed pros behind the film. This may be a short, but it’s not from some young film school wannabe paying for his/her shoestring budget with mom’s and dad’s credit cards. Writer/director Guilermo Arriaga has a strong screenwriting track record in features with such credits as 21 Grams (2003) and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), the minimal music is by the great Philip Glass, and the elegant, ambery cinematography comes courtesy of Janusz Kaminski who has shot every Steven Spielberg film since Schindler’s List (1993).
Kaminski and Glass are perfect choices for a piece that’s all about mood. Broken Night is defiantly deliberate, often basking in an unsettling silence and stillness, Glass’ score only filtering in when the two strange boys appear. Kaminski’s pristine images capture a sun-bathed idyll turned, by circumstance, into a threatening No Man’s Land, pictorially beautiful yet empty and ultimately hostile.
But your taste for Broken Night is wholly dependent on your taste for free-floating fear. The film is a carefully composed piece, but it is just that: composed. The strange, silent, unexplained boys are an artifice, a movie gimmick, designed – nicely, I must admit – to create unease. At one point, one of them pokes his finger into one of Mom’s wounds, then sucks the blood off his finger. If that doesn’t give you the creeps, well, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.
Still, the movie feels less like a story than a calculation: what’ll really get to people? Go after the child. Snack on the mom’s blood. Leave one of the kid’s shoes and let people wonder.
Broken Night is so carefully put together it’s hard not to think Arriaga has a plan at work, and that his adamantly refusing to explain, to even hint at what’s going on behind those grassy hills is an audacious storytelling choice.
The alternative is he’s just messing with us, but I’d be lying if I didn’t concede he does it with a sure hand and high polish.
– Bill Mesce
Limited only by run time, and driven by innovation and experimentation, short films transcend the rules of conventional storytelling. From cutting-edge animation to the best in Native and documentary cinema, the Sundance Shorts Programs call out filmmaking’s most original imaginations.