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What kind of filmmaker does Mona Fastvold want to be? It’s an existential question that comes up often at Sundance, where artistic and industry cred are often judged at the same time. THE SLEEPWALKER, Fastvold’s first film as director and (with Brady Corbet, one of the film’s stars) co-writer, works for much of its length as a small-scale but effectively insinuating thriller and family drama–then in its final minutes it declares itself self-consciously as an “indie,” wrapping itself in ambiguity and employing that most painful film festival cliche, the inconclusive non-ending ending. The result is a promising effort that doesn’t really satisfy fans of either art or entertainment.
The set-up is simple. Kaia (Gitte Witt) and Andrew (Christopher Abbott) are a couple who are renovating (and living in) a house built by Kaia’s famous architect father, who’s been dead for years. Both of them have pasts they’d rather not talk about: Andrew has a history of violence, and Kaia’s body is marked with mysterious burns related to a long-ago fire. One night, Kaia’s half-sister Christine (Stephanie Ellis) shows up (they share the same father), revealing herself to be pregnant and engaged–her fiancee Ira (Corbet) arrives soon afterward. Christine is the wild card of the family, irresponsible and perhaps worse, her behavior controlled by medication that she’s stopped taking due to her pregnancy.
Tensions abound. Andrew hates the yuppie Ira on sight, and the two half-siblings have old, unspoken resentments and secrets. Christine is difficult enough when she’s awake, and at night she unconsciously stalks the house and grounds, as she did as a child–and it isn’t just walking, as some of her actions suggest what might have happened during her and Kaia’s childhood.
Fastvold and Corbet do a fine job of escalating the strains, providing hints but only partial revelations of what’s going on. Fastvold’s control over the technical side of the film is impressive, with evocatively menacing photography by Zachary Galler and a sound design that includes a strong, jangling score by Sondre Lerche (Fastvold’s husband) and Kato Adland. All four actors give intense, ambiguous performances that keep viewers guessing about their true natures.
The Sleepwalker keeps us interested and paying attention, invested in the developing story and the characters… and then it fizzles. A character disappears, not to be found. (Ah, you can almost hear Fastvold and Corbet assert, just like Antonioni!) There are suggestions about what might have happened, but no answers. Violence occurs, but not in a way that resolves anything. The film probably means all this to be powerfully unsettled, but it’s just unsatisfying, in a way that feels lazy because it’s so familiar in the context of indie drama.
Perhaps Fasstvold and Corbet felt like it would be too easy or cheap to provide audiences with mere “satisfaction,” and that they’re being more ambitious and thought-provoking by leaving things open-ended–and there was a time in the history of independent film when that might have seemed true. After decades of such non-decisiveness, though, it feels more like the opposite. Based on The Sleepwalker, Mona Fastvold has a real future at directing tense entertainments, if that’s what she wants, or to make character-driven dramas. If she prefers to go deeper, though, she’ll find the distance is farther down than this film is willing to go.