Jan 24, 2014

Sundance Review: "The Sleepwalker" is a Creepy Take on Dysfunctional Relationships

Director Mona Fastvold’s The Sleepwalker is an unnerving portrait of family dysfunction. While not an outright horror film, the atmosphere, soundtrack, and performances are full of disturbing nuances that dissect the lives of two sisters in a fixer-upper house and their emotionally opposite boyfriends. The tension builds slowly and resonates in subtle ways as the film ends abruptly in a way that feels unresolved. Overall, the film works as a tonal drama that becomes increasingly immersive the more personal it gets.
Kaia (Gitte Witt) is fixing up her house with Andrew (Christopher Abbott) and dream of having a wonderful place to live. In a secluded forest by a lake, things seem to be at peace until Kaia’s sister Christine (Stephanie Ellis) comes to visit. Each woman’s troubled past comes to the surface as Christina’s sleepwalking becomes more problematic and Andrew becomes more frustrated by her stay. As the story progresses, the stakes rise and the film becomes more haunting.
The film’s largest success comes in Fastvold’s ability to create a universe that is grounded in drama, but surrounded by horror elements. She knows how to effectively use the score, provided by Sondre Lerche and Kato Adland that mixed deep, bass-like sounds with percussive notes and high-pitched strings that give off a hypnotic, uncertain feeling. Along with the backdrop of dark forests and static shots of awkward conversations make the horror feel more meditative than forced. By letting the characters run free with subtle tics and coy language, it unravels the mysteries slowly.
The performances help to ground it even more, specifically those by Gitte Witt and Christopher Abbott. Abbott is a haunting presence of frustration whose slow boil into aggression is a fascinating transition to watch. As he becomes less sympathetic to everyone around him, his unpredictable nature becomes menacing. Witt’s submissive nature helps the horror to feel natural and the questions surrounding the third act feel more personal. Thanks to these two performances and the lack of clear answers, the film creates an unnerving, thought-provoking result that will sit with the viewer long after the film ends.
As a whole, the film does play a little slowly and isn’t always captivating. As a debut, Fastvold makes a promising, complex film that shows confidence. With great performances by an intimate cast, she manages to capture the nuances of disagreement without falling into soapy territory. The inhabited world is also gorgeous yet haunting, never letting the horror trump the realism. It is an immersive experience that creates immediacy. Most of all, it is a puzzle that may reward multiple viewings.

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