By NICK SCHAGER
The aftershocks of trauma can take many forms, as Katherine (Katherine Waterston) learns following the death of her famous husband in “State Like Sleep,” writer-director Meredith Danluck’s unsettling first feature. Aided by Christopher Blauvelt’s sumptuous cinematography, this consistently surprising film slinks along with melancholic dreaminess, matching the fugue state that plagues its grief-stricken protagonist. With Michael Shannon and Luke Evans also upending expectations in supporting roles, it’s a confident debut that should reap considerable attention from distributors, and opportunities for Danluck, following its premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
“Without stories, the truth is too random,” opines Belgian actor Stefan (Michiel Huisman) during a TV interview at the start of “State Like Sleep.” Though the thespian comes off as full of himself (and also something decidedly odorous), it’s an insight that defines Danluck’s tale. Via eerie shots through Stefan and wife Katherine’s messy Brussels flat, as well as oblique glimpses of a gunshot and blood pooling around Stefan’s head, the subsequent drama is set in motion. Before audiences can settle in, however, the film leaps forward a year in time, to find Katherine — a photographer who has since abandoned her home — receiving news that her mother (Mary Kay Place) is in Brussels, and in the hospital. Thus, Katherine’s long-delayed return trip to the scene of the crime begins.
With a look of perpetual misery plastered across her face, Katherine is soon dealing with not only her mother’s fragile brain-related condition, but also her nasty mother-in-law Anneke (Julie Kahner), who resents Katherine for stealing away the affections of her beloved boy. Back in the residence she fled, Katherine is compelled to confront the marital messiness that immediately preceded Stefan’s death, including a tabloid scandal involving leaked pictures of him with a mysterious woman. Wracked by questions about Stefan’s fidelity, as well as whether foul play was to blame for his demise, Katherine transforms herself into an amateur sleuth, trawling the darker corners of Brussels — and her memory — to solve what she suspects may be a whodunit.
That endeavor leads Katherineto an underground nightclub run by Emile (Evans), a live-wire who was Stefan’s best friend since childhood (unbeknownst to Katherine), and who attempts to bed her by tricking her into snorting heroin. While eying Emile as a potential suspect, she strikes up an unlikely rapport with Edward (Shannon), a hotel neighbor who first introduces himself by drunkenly trying to enter her room. In “Rear Window” fashion, Katherine uses her camera to watch Edward through their adjacent windows. Yet despite a guilelessness that verges on bluntness, Edward is anything but a Raymond Burr-ish villain. Before long, their shared feelings of dislocation and longing — for connection, understanding, and relief from their loneliness — draws them into a tentative romance.
Using Waterston’s changing hairstyle as a way to identify where different scenes fit in the film’s chronology, Danluck cross-cuts between past and present with stream-of-consciousness fluidity, creating a hypnotic mood in harmony with her hazy metropolitan milieu and Katherine’s dazed-and-confused headspace. To that end, “State Like Sleep” is bolstered by Jeff Wingo and David Mcilwain’s piano-and-electronica score, and moreover, by DP Blauvelt’s rapturous work. His woozy imagery is awash in reflections and light flares, filtered through streaky windows and translucent barriers, and marked by unexpected compositions that lend the action a striking, disorienting edginess.
Waterston embodies Katherine as a lost soul consumed by delusional sorrow, and around the edges of her morose expressions, one can spy the woman’s marrow-deep desperation. Just as assured are Evans and Shannon, both of whom initially come across as neo-noir archetypes — the volatile underworld scumbag and the charming but untrustworthy stranger, respectively — and then skillfully develop surprising angles to their characters. Seething with irrepressible resentment, Khaner steals every scene she’s in, including a climax that plays like a startling slap to a slumbering face.