' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...30 Days of Night

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Some Drivel On...30 Days of Night

“30 Days of Night” has a helluva hook. Set in Barrow, Alaska, the sun is setting for a month, plunging this place, the northernmost city in the United States, into its annual month of darkness. As you might surmise, this renders it a feeding utopia for vampires who, sure enough, as the sun slides behind the snowy horizon, send a freaky stranger (Ben Foster) ahead to warn of their impending arrival. If this stranger’s perfunctory demise seems designed to have a little fun with the prophet archetype, alas, the sense of humor is doused along with the sun, suggesting how director David Slade’s film, culled from a graphic novel by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith, is not entirely successful. “30 Days of Night” is too long where tighter focus might have made it count for more and lacking in character dimension where a little more of it might do. Still, the obliqueness of the vampires’ motivations works wonders, transforming the inherent pointlessness of the gory set pieces into something truly sinister. 

As the movie opens, Barrow’s sheriff, Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), investigating foreboding footprints in the snow, watches the last sunset of the month, the camera cutting to a close-up of a resigned Eben, letting us get a handle on what this means. It’s too bad, then, that “30 Days of Night” forgoes lingering onstitutes the apparently depressing slide into a monthlong night. No, as soon as the sun disappears, Slade sets the plot in motion, with Eben going all over town checking out various ominous disturbances while his ex, Stella (Melissa George), finds herself stuck in town when she’s trying to flee. If this relationship refreshingly remains ambiguous, allowing a few elliptical statements and inherent tension between them to do all the work, “30 Days of Night” is less successful cultivating dimension where the other town folk are concerned. When Eben cites the town hermit (Mark Boone Junior) for a traffic violation in an early scene, the Sheriff mentions the ticket is meant to keep him connected to the community, an idea that never fully blooms, even after the few survivors hole up together, because the hermit character and others remain undefined.

Given the intense circumstances, the laid-back Hartnett might seem an odd choice to play the lead. He isn’t and he is. He isn’t because ever since he showed up in “The Faculty” with a permanent sense of bedhead, he has come across like someone sleepwalking, perhaps undead, which makes him the perfect Sheriff for a town suffering through 30 Days of Night. If that’s a bit harsh, let it also be said that Harnett at least cultivates an impressive sense of panic as his character struggles to get a handle on what’s happening, as does George, both of them refusing to play resolute heroes the whole way through. The trouble really comes, though, with the movie’s closing twist, in which (13-year spoiler alert) Eben turns himself into a vampire since it’s the only way to combat their unstoppable enemies. 

If minimal backstory hampers our ability to sympathize with the townsfolk, a similar lack of history for the vampires proves a significant benefit. If their costuming is chic, and if Danny Huston as the blood-craving horde’s leader earns a few showy lines, mostly these undead villains are portrayed as nothing less than feral animals, evoked in terrifying howls, like a pack of wolves, intent on feeding and utterly nothing else. Slade underscores this idea with the movie’s most elaborate, evocative shot, one from above, looking down on Barrow’s main street as the citizens are massacred. More than Huston’s character declaring that God doesn’t exist, this shot brings that notion home, transforming the God’s Eye view into something distant and detached. In this way, the lack of dimension to the human characters might have been a strength had Slade rendered them as being reduced to animal instincts too. Harnett, though, in becoming one of Them, is too much a choirboy to pull off that comparison. Boone Junior, on the other hand, left me wondering what “30 Days of Night” might have looked if their roles were switched. When his character tries taking all the bloodsucking predators with him in a fireball of glory, for a second there, as it lights up his heavily bearded face, he looks like a beast too.

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