The Sleepwalker

On paper, The Sleepwalker looks like hundreds of other indie films: four young people (including two sisters) spend a few days with each other in a remote location, and proceed to explore each other’s insecurities and weaknesses. The “hell is other people” theme is a familiar one, but first-time director Mona Fastvold serves it up with a strikingly different tone than other films of this sort. The sort of passive-aggressive button-pushing this film depicts is often used for surly, neurotic comedy-drama, but Fastvold pushes it right up to the edge of horror/thriller territory. I’m not sure that the film’s ending is as powerful and profound as it wants to be, but the journey there is surprisingly gripping.

Kaia (Gitte Witt, The Impossible) and her taciturn boyfriend Andrew (Christopher Abbott, A Most Violent Year) are busy renovating Kaia’s old family home in rural Massachusetts. One day, Kaia gets a surprise visit from her estranged sister Christine (Stephanie Ellis, Men in Black 3), who has a couple of announcements to make: she’s engaged, and she’s pregnant. The next day, Christine’s concerned fiance Ira (co-writer Brady Corbet, Martha Marcy May Marlene) turns up, and soon enough it’s agreed that everyone should just hang out for a few days and get to know each other. This development doesn’t sit terribly well with Andrew, who quickly grows to dislike the extroverted, flirty Ira.

It doesn’t take long for a host of tensions to rise to the surface in The Sleepwalker. Some of these tensions are fueled by simple personality differences, while some seem to be rooted in long-buried psychological trauma. It’s clear that something painful happened between the two sisters a long time ago. We know that a house fire left Kaia with a prominent scar, and we know that Christine was somehow responsible for the fire. Christine is eager to make amends, but Kaia would rather just ignore the subject. Meanwhile, dangerous strains of jealousy, desire and rage appear at various points, and all four of the characters begin to reveal their hidden depths (some affecting, some appalling).

Fastvold demonstrates a real talent for conjuring up an atmosphere of dread, and there were several points in the movie where I felt certain that this psychological drama was about to explode into something considerably darker. There’s very little violence in the film, but the threat of violence hangs over the movie on an alarmingly regular basis. The camera often observes the characters from a distance, with lots of medium-to-long shots granting this tense tale a sense of chilly detachment. The exceptional score (written by Sondre Lerch and Kato Adland) finds ways to play up both the inviting atmosphere and the squirm-inducing emotional climate - more than once, I was reminded of the effect Angelo Badalamenti’s music had on Twin Peaks.

All four of the actors have an interesting challenge to deal with: they must convince us that they are one sort of person, then convince us that they are another sort of person without entirely betraying the first impression they provided. Everyone pulls this off fairly well, particularly Abbott as the implosive Andrew. The tender but wounded relationship between Kaia and Christine forms the heart of the movie, and I like the way Ellis and Witt establish a relationship that feels both lived-in and delicate.

There are moments when indie-film conventions threaten to damage the film’s impact. The movie employs nudity/sexuality on a fairly regular basis - sometimes for legitimate reasons, and sometimes as a cheap ploy to sustain audience interest. The ambiguous ending is certain to divide viewers, as ambiguous endings often do. I tend to like them when they’re well-executed, but the ambiguity seems less like a necessity than an attention-grabbing flourish in this case. I’m also not sure that I buy the way one of the characters leaves the film as it nears the finish line. These quibbles aside, there’s a good deal of powerful stuff here, and Fastvold is clearly a director to watch.

The Sleepwalker

Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 91 minutes
Release Year: 2014