In times of crisis, the mind seeks a reason, an explanation, to latch onto to make sense out of the chaos, to offer something to rail against, barter with, and blame. State Like Sleep tackles this notion in a twisting dramatic thriller from writer/director Meredith Danluck. Inspired by two separate traumatic events in her life, Danluck uses Sleep as a means of exploring grief and the stories we tell ourselves to cope with the pain and asks an important question: in order to heal, do we need the truth or our truth?
One year since her husband Stefan’s (Michiel Huisman) suicide, Katherine (Katherine Waterston) returns to Brussels from the States after she receives an urgent call about her mother Elaine’s (Mary Kay Place) health. Though she fled from Brussels without looking back, what she returns to appears like a moment frozen in time and she finds herself wondering what really happened on the day her husband died. It’s a door she thought she left closed, but once it’s opened, it forces her to question what she knew about her husband. It’s a journey of personal discovery and self-realization that Katherine is unprepared to face alone.
State Like Sleep is a multi-layered experience which is thoughtfully developed at every level. The story is fairly straight-forward: Katherine’s return to a place she fled brings up countless emotions she’s spent a year burying and, in returning, she decides to confront the past by playing detective. She presumes a reason which may have been hidden from her intentionally or which may have been hidden due to shock. However, Danluck’s narrative reveals itself to be increasing more complex and intricate, all while becoming incredibly simple and mundane. Interestingly, Danluck didn’t design Sleep as a straight-forward tale, but one which weaves in and out of time as Katherine remembers and, in some cases, re-experiences the events leading up to her husband’s death. Doing so enables the audience to get a sense of not just Katherine’s physical journey, but her psychological one, as well. This means that the audience observes some of the same events over and again, just as Katherine rolls them around in her mind. However, each time, a new detail is revealed which shifts the perspective of not only the characters, but of the audience. Like sifting through a million little pieces to find something, anything, to see the entire picture of a puzzle, the flash backs – and flash backs within flash backs – reshape Katherine’s world.
At its core, Sleep is a psychological journey which the body merely facilitates, so understanding what’s going on underneath Katherine’s various layer of self-protection is vital to the success of the film. Waterston wonderfully portrays the millions upon millions of emotions which Katherine experiences at any given moment, largely with simple changes in facial reactions or gestures. Katherine, we’re shown, is deeply insular, so it’s important for Waterston’s performance to reflect this, which she does in spades. There’s a moment where Katherine meets a man at a club her husband had frequented before his death and she ends up going home with him. In a scene with little explanation or set-up, Katherine ends up getting into a bath, at the man’s request, so he can wash her hair. Waterston conveys both confusion and a strange delight merely through her face, the only thing visible in the bath, as the man lovingly caresses her head, massaging the shampoo into her scalp. It’s a strange sequence, yet Waterston’s able to convey a kind of delicate sweetness, as though this is a form of intimacy that Katherine’s forgone for a great while. Similarly, when she engages in a kiss with another man, Katherine’s entire body rises and falls into it, as though finally free from a self-imposed celibacy. These small details make State Like Sleep feel far more personal and insular.
Interestingly, the world Katherine inhabits is presented as equally complex and similarly simple. These additional details reinforce Katherine’s own psychological journey without feeling in any way hyperreal or illusory, even when Sleep delves into territory which might suggest otherwise. Take Katherine and Stefan’s home – the literal scene of the crime and the last place Katherine ever wants to return – which is designed in a cold, ultra-modern style: steel doorframes, wires create a barricade along the hand rails leading up the stairs, and the only color lining the walls is white. There’s no warmth in the place, which compounds the notion of lifelessness which all the characters who enter the home feel. Of course, the loft serves an additional purpose as a space frozen in time – no one’s touched anything in a year, so it’s exactly as it was when Katherine left it – making the almost brutishly inert location exude a force upon Katherine when she enters. Conversely, the hotel she stays in while her mother’s in the hospital is colored with blues, browns, and gold. It feels warm and lived in, despite it being a location for transients.
There’s a general sense that January is a dumping ground for cinema. Thanks to digital channels, that’s no longer the case and The Orchard is coming out swinging with this early release. Though not the thriller the trailer suggests, State Like Sleep is an intense mystery drama. It raises questions not just of what Katherine knows or has suppressed, but also of how her own belief of the truth kept her locked in place, isolated, and unable to heal. Danluck’s tale is one of grief and recovery, so the best way to process State Like Sleep is with your eyes wide open.
Available on VOD and digital January 1st, 2019.
Available in theaters January 4th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.