A narcotized neo-noir that unfolds with the diverting purposelessness of a forgettable dream, Meredith Danluck’s “State Like Sleep” doesn’t really go anywhere, but it lulls you into enough of a stupor to enjoy the time it takes to get there. Much of the credit for that belongs to “The Bling Ring” cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, who coats the (supposedly) Belgian locations of this dead-end story with a shimmer that makes every beat feel a little more beguiling than it should. The rest might have to go to Katherine Waterston, whose “Alien: Covenant” bowl-cut gets the rousing curtain call it deserves (this film was shot back in the summer of 2016).
The basic details of the story are simple, though Danluck presents them in a pleasantly disorienting fashion. It starts with a Belgian movie star named Stefan Delvoe (“Game of Thrones” actor Michiel Huisman) giving a television interview to promote the start of production on his first blockbuster, “Steel Chase” — one of the best fake action movie titles since the Keanu Reeves vehicle “Terminal Velocity” from “Lost in Translation.” When asked why such a handsome man would ever want to pursue a career that could make him rich and famous, Stefan replies: “We need stories to make sense of the world. Without stories, the truth would seem random.”
A year after his murder — the result of two gunshots from an unknown shooter — his photographer widow Katherine (Waterston) is still trying to make sense of the world. But it should be clarified that she’s not trying all that hard. Numb from the loss (even though Stefan’s drug addiction and possible affairs had put their relationship on thin ice before his death), Katherine is now living in New York in the hopes that a change of scenery might prompt her next step. Brussels, however, is calling her back. Katherine’s very American mom — visiting Europe for plot reasons that are explained, but not remembered — has suffered a “minuscule” stroke. And so it’s back to Belgium for our somnambulant heroine, who soon finds herself delving into the mystery of her late husband’s demise. She’s trying to bring order to a painful chapter of her life that ended in chaos.
The first thing you’re likely to notice about the strange (and somewhat sleazy) adventure that follows is that it was an absolute stroke of genius to cast Mary Kay Place as Katherine’s mom. It’s uncanny — she couldn’t better resemble Waterston if she were her actual mother. Even if the character spends most of the movie in a coma, there’s no denying that “State of Sleep” has an excellent grasp of Place’s talents. In a way, that strength extends to the film’s surreal and evocative locations, the most striking of which is the secretive nightclub Katherine visits after finding a few clues about who might have killed Stefan. It’s there she meets the mysterious Emile (a dye-blond Luke Evans, channeling Jonny Lee Miller).
It’s also where she meets a random hookup who ejaculates while washing her hair as part of some elaborate shampoo fetish. Don’t ask. In another movie, that discomforting sequence might actually develop the plot. In Danluck’s strange and hypnotic debut, it exists only to disorient us, as the writer-director divorces her film from any easy classification. Is this a Lynchian psycho-thriller? A seedy bit of post-’90s Euro-sleaze? Or — as we start to suspect when Katherine’s domineering mother-in-law shows up — is it more of a domestic whodunnit?
The truth of the matter is that it’s somehow both all and none of those things; the movie floats from one mode to the next without any discernible reason. It’s the kind of floating that can only be achieved through sharp control, and Danluck’s steady direction (there’s very little handheld camerawork here) always gives the impression that we’re moving towards a clear destination, however false that impression might be.
For all of its go-nowhere subplots, “State of Sleep” is actually at its best during the most go-nowhere subplot of them all. It starts when Katherine encounters the surly and hostile American staying in the next hotel room. His name is Edward, he’s played by Michael Shannon, and he has some very provocative questions about marriage (“Does sleeping with one person change how you feel about another?”). Genial and only kind of threatening, Shannon’s performance is a refreshing change of pace for an actor who’s trended towards self-parody, even in an Oscar-winning triumph like “The Shape of Water.”
It helps that this is one of the few Michael Shannon movies that’s willing to uncomplicate his handsomeness. Danluck outfits the actor like a matinee hunk. His scenes with Waterston are powered by the combustible, unstable chemistry that forms between them, and the film peaks with a bit where the two actors sit across a table from each other and list words that sound like their meanings. “Curve.” “Rumple.” “Burden.” And so on.
It’s the kind of moment that deceives you into thinking that it’s a prelude to something more, just like the rest of this movie feels like it’s building to a major twist that never comes. You’ll be convinced that the unseen sister Katherine repeatedly calls on the phone is, in fact, her alternate personality or something. But no. As a portrait of grief, “State Like Sleep” is too hazy and anesthetized to add up. As a noir-tinged drama about the fundamental human need for narrative clarity (and how it can lead us to overcomplicate simple truths about the people we’ve lost), it’s too confused to work. But as a disembodied movie about Katherine Waterston losing herself in the dirty bathwater of someone else’s subconscious, it’s almost weightless enough to work.
“State Like Sleep” premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.