Approaching the subject of one of the first mass shootings in American history is by nature a tricky undertaking. In the case of the UT Austin clock tower shooting, it seems even more so; compared to other, more recent shootings, which usually take place in confined spaces like a movie theater, a club, or a school campus, this one took place in the wide expanses of downtown Austin, where no one seemed safe during the prolonged, two-hour standoff. So Keith Maitland’s approach comes as somewhat of a surprise: instead of seeking to paint a comprehensive portrait of this shocking day, it is a story primarily in anecdotes, from people who in all likelihood would only connect in events as shattering as this.
The most striking aspect is, undoubtedly, the almost entirely rotoscoped aesthetic of Tower. It almost purposefully eschews photorealism for a more impressionistic, almost faded effect, exaggerating the expressions and emphasizing the details, like the beads of sweat in the summer Texan heat or the sudden flashes of light from bullets on the sides of buildings. Even more radical is the mixing of archival footage with this animation. Particularly in the opening—before the shooting occurs—Maitland splices in animation interacting directly with the footage, the bright colors of the cars pulling up to the curb or people walking through the UT campus contrasting with the monochrome photography. But after the shooting happens, in an admittedly spurious but incredibly effective creative choice, the colors bleed out of the animation. Each person gets their own “loss of innocence” moment as they learn about the shooting (no matter how far it is into the actual events), and crucially the color never returns after the fact; when recalling certain memories the color returns to only further accentuate this point.
The artistic depiction extends to the actual storytelling, conveyed entirely through “interviews” with the animated figures of people who were directly affected by the shooting (voiced by actors). It is at heart a story about the survivors; only three or four victims are directly mentioned during the course of the film (though the film is dedicated to each of the victims), but a sense of tension is never lost as many of the characters are either seriously wounded or in perpetual danger throughout the shooting. Of course, Maitland chooses the most important figures—including the still living people who killed the shooter—but they remain resolutely human, defined by both their actions and their emotions. In the standout scene, one of the subjects, a wounded college student lying on the pavement near the clock tower, tells a good samaritan about her just-deceased boyfriend. The visuals instantly shift to a sort of psychedelia which had been only hinted at before, and Maitland fully embraces the escapism that the animation allows, abandoning the terror of the moment for something altogether more transcendent.
If Tower has a weakness, it is perhaps its overeagerness to wrap up every single point, proceeding far beyond what should be the logical ending point. But this counts for little when there are as sublime moments as when Maitland cuts to live action footage of the interview subjects as they are today, speaking in their own voices, or the power of the split-second flashes of red when someone is wounded. Instead of providing a voice to the killer (Whitman is shown only through the barrel of his gun in archival footage or pictures from before the shooting), it is a portrayal of those who lived, and how ordinary people can come together when they absolutely must.