The muzzy mystery State Like Sleep, written and directed by Meredith Danluck, is good enough to make you wish it were better, less slack, more resolved — though as I write that I’m aware that its slackness and irresolution are central to the movie’s power and the whole point, really. Maybe my assessment is colored by the dud ending, since the journey to its criminally unsatisfying final scenes is tantalizingly dreamlike and unnerving.
Katherine Waterston is Katherine, the quasi-Gothic heroine whose Belgian movie-star husband, Stefan (Michiel Huisman), either put a bullet in his head or was set up to make it look as if he did. In flashbacks, we see the couple’s happy days as well as its last, anguished ones, in which Katherine is in the process of moving out because of Stefan’s alleged infidelity (tabloid pictures of him with a blonde woman) and flagrant drug binges.
Thanks to Katherine’s decision to cut her hair after her husband’s death, Danluck and editor Curtiss Clayton can glide between time periods without fear of confusing us. And glide they do. The title is a description of Katherine’s near-fugue state, of how she drifts through old haunts and new fear-chambers in a haze of memories, paralyzed by guilt and unable to remain in the present. But she’s also trying to get to the bottom of her husband’s death — she’s Antsy Drew. As she gropes toward lucidity, another world is heard from: Her mother (Mary Kay Place) has a series of strokes and lies in a hospital bed, somewhere between life and death. Katherine has nothing in her world to hold onto. Indefinition defines her.
Danluck’s writing, fortunately, has sharp edges that slice through some of the murk. Mary Kay Place (when conscious) is amusingly brassy, with a fun first scene in which she lambastes a Belgian nurse for failing to find a suitable vein in which to insert an IV. Julie Khaner harshes any possible mellow as the dead Stefan’s abrasive mother, who was attached to her son both emotionally and — more mysteriously — financially. She’s the movie’s most discordant note: The more of her there is, the tenser we become. Then there’s Emile (Luke Evans), a white-blond club operator who was apparently Stefan’s best friend (though Katherine never heard his name) and is so ostentatiously sinister he’d be laughable if he weren’t so seductive. Watch him settle beside her on a sofa to the trancelike angst of ‘80s New Wave while plugging her nose with heroin, his hand caressing her bare arms in what feels like damnably erotic slow motion. Will she surrender to this vaguely malevolent figure? Part of her wants to.
State Like Sleep does have a more definite figure, although one with weird ellipses. His name is Edward, he lives in a close-by apartment, and he’s played by Michael Shannon, normally not associated with Mr. Stability roles but gentle and likable here. Shannon and Waterston have an easy rapport. They were great together as the civic-minded capitalist George Westinghouse and his brilliant wife in the so-so The Current War, which was screened in Toronto in 2017 but has yet to be released. (It was a Harvey Weinstein Oscar-bait project and radioactive.) Shannon’s Edward is a married man who seeks company wherever he goes (“Love the one you’re with,” he actually says, to Katherine’s disgust) but sees in Katherine a more enduring prospect. Their first scenes are delightful, especially the one in which they muse on onomatopoeic words like curve, pierce, slide, and (good one) anguish. Their last scenes are florid and unearned.
Which is as much as I can say. State Like Sleep works up a decent head of thriller steam and then stalls. Dead. On. The. Screen. You could make a case that by raising and then pointedly rejecting the demands of genre Danluck has been true to her vision — to the theme of no one knowing who anyone is really and the idea that stories are constructs that help us live more comfortably but are essentially false. You could make that case. I wouldn’t. I think that, without meaning to, Danluck cheats the audience.
Waterston doesn’t give you what Debra Winger did in the ne plus ultra of bereft women mysteries, Mike’s Murder — the roiling beneath the surface. She’s softer and more remote. But movies often come down to, Do I want to watch this person’s face for nearly two hours? and Waterston is very watchable. The pain that dulls her features is somehow exciting. It fits Danluck’s onomatopoeic idea of anguish.