Grief consumes all in Meredith Danluck’s State Like Sleep. The director laces the paralyzing feeling into her newest feature to create a drippy, noir, murder mystery that drags the viewer to its conclusion with stops and starts. While State Like Sleep may personify its target emotion to a tee, it doesn’t make for a compelling watch.
The film follows Katherine (Katherine Waterson), a woman still coming to terms with her husband’s death the year prior. She has escaped to New York, hoping that a change in scenery will expedite the process, but when her mother gets sick she is pulled back to the scene of the incident, Brussels. Forced to confront her grief, Katherine begins to unravel new mysteries as she digs into her husband’s final days.
Waterson is excellent casting in the lead role, showing an in-depth understanding of the complexities of grief. While Katherine’s year-long escape to the States sounds like negligence, Waterson’s body language and void-like facial expression show how grieved to the point of inoperability her character is. She is a woman floating through the sea of life who only shows a desire to push back when she is on the brink of drowning. It’s a fight or flight reaction that is endearing to watch unfold.
We get similarly conflicting reactions with each new character introduction. Whether she is meeting a weathered neighbor (Michael Shannon) or a former friend of her husband (Luke Evans), she approaches each new scenario with a desire to learn more but appears to always be on the brink of falling into a depressive hole. Add in the work of cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt who creates a world teeming with seductive dread – danger feels just around the corner in every scene, but the enchanting nature in which it is shot calls for further exploration – and you get a portrayal that keeps the viewers on their toes, rooting for Katherine’s growth.
A majority of these highlights can get overlooked, however, thanks to a plot that doesn’t have a destination in mind. The relationship between Katherine and the aforementioned neighbor, Edward, plays out with an uneasy chemistry that shifts between romantic and tense. As the two discuss marriage and what it does to those involved one would think this plays a larger role in the narrative, but it ultimately equates to a distraction.
The same can be said for Katherine’s relationship to her mother-in-law. The two converse early on in a way that sets the film up as a classic whodunnit, casting doubt and intrigue onto our protagonist. This too is dragged out to the extent that any payoff feels insignificant. The actors do an excellent job of creating tension, but it always results in a whimper rather than a bang. They are simply distractions for Katherine to busy herself with until the plot calls for a new scene.
State Like Sleep succumbs to the grief it is so desperate to explore. It finds subplots worth diving into, but either gets distracted by another subplot or loses interest before too long and gives up on the exploration. The film has enticing ideas, but lacks the gusto to get there. It’s a hazy feature that were it not for the light of its cast and visuals would be lost and forgotten.