Daylight (2013)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

“The first tape left a lot of questions unanswered,” says Officer Rick Boyd (Bill Tush) in the prologue to Daylight (named for the small Indiana town on whose outskirts the film’s different elements converge), “and unfortunately even after three years, the second one just raises more.”

This comes as a clear programme of intent: a mystery will follow, in two discrete halves distributed over two different tapes whose footage will constitute everything we subsesquently see in the film. The tapes document the last recorded days of Child Protective Services operative Jennifer Borman (Jennifer Bacon) and her two assistants David McCracken (David McCracken) and Josh Riedford (Josh Riedford) as their investigations into some possible cases of child abuse lead them inexorably (if circuitously) to the lakeside Irons residence from which they, along with Father Patrick Andersen (Patrick J. Andersen) and nine-year-old Sydney Irons (Sydney Morris), will disappear entirely, leaving behind only a trail of corpses, footprints – and videotapes.

The first tape follows the breadcrumbs of various troubling cases involving children who are clearly very damaged even if the cause is less obvious – while there is a certain equivocation maintained as to whether the local Church (embodied by Father Andersen) is a source of help or a major part of the problem. This section, though certainly engaging and full of well-drawn, believable characters, is a thoroughly linear trawl through the conventional tropes of ‘found footage’, and does little to advance the subgenre.

The second tape, however, as Officer Boyd had suggested, is altogether more challengingly experimental: it begins by presenting a layered labyrinth of recordings made at different times that increasingly bleed into one another, while in parallel to this it follows its characters as they themselves (and we with them) become more and more lost in a nightmarish limbo governed by disorienting leaps of time and space. If this all at once evokes Don’t Look Now (1973), Silent Hill (2006), Shutter Island (2010) and Inception (2010), it is something that has never before been essayed by ‘first-person’ faux reportage. After lulling us into a false sense of security with the inherent realism of their chosen form, co-directors David McCracken, Joel Townsend and Kaidan Tremain suddenly plunge us into dizzying depths of irrationality and leave us to find our own way back to the surface.

Here the found footage itself becomes a kind of twilight zone where, just as older recorded materials occasionally intrude upon the new, the past itself is eternally returning to haunt the present, and cannot easily, perhaps ever, be erased or escaped. The puzzles and paradoxes that emerge from this fluid hell may well be rattling about in your head for days after – for even if Daylight works on some level as a genre tale of demonic possession and failed exorcism, it still never stops baring the deep scars left by abuse and childhood trauma. It is also, in the final reel, diabolically confusing – not so much because it is incoherent, but rather because it is the very best kind of uncanny, capturing on its tapes an eerie, ambiguous Armageddon, as much psychological as supernatural, that is left entirely unresolved. It turns out that daylight, even broad daylight, cannot always cast clarity on such mind-meltingly murky waters – proving that there is still invention aplenty in the found footage format.

Anton Bitel