Film & Television

Women Behind the Camera: ‘Rust Creek’ and ‘State Like Sleep’

Another determined heroine appears in Meredith Danluck’s new movie, State Like Sleep, although it’s very different stylistically. In an interview with Women and Hollywood, the director describes her film as a “classic noir, ’80s American abroad psychological thriller with its guts spilled out.” Her goal, as she explains it, is to examine “the ephemera emotional depths of grief.”

Katherine (Katherine Waterston, of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) is an American photographer and the widow of Belgian movie star Stefan (Michiel Huisman), who apparently committed suicide a year earlier. She is called back to Brussels by her mother, Elaine (Mary Kay Place), who has had what she describes as “a minuscule stroke.” Elaine is in Brussels helping Stefan’s monstrous mother, Anneke (Julie Khaner), clean out the stylish loft where Katherine and Stefan once lived. So, Katherine must leave the relative safety of the States and return to face her own memories, grief, and guilt, as well as some unsolved mystery surrounding Stefan’s death.

Danluck uses a clever convention to help us recognize which scenes are in the present and which are in the past. Katherine has long hair and bangs during Stefan’s final days, but a short, bowl cut in the present-day scenes. (Fans of Alien: Covenant will recognize the signature do. For myself, I was constantly reminded of Demi Moore in 1990’s Ghost. It’s an apt comparison, since both women are drowning in grief.) As Katherine sorts through things in her loft, she finds clues that gnaw at her, making her wonder if Stefan was murdered. She’s led to a secret nightclub and meets strange, almost sinister, acquaintances of her late husband. One, Emile (Luke Evans with startling bleached hair), offers her some coke, which turns out to be heroin. She escapes after a startling act of violence rouses her from a sleep-like state, gets sick along a river’s edge, and goes home with Edward (Michael Shannon), a neighbor from her hotel.

Determined, Katherine continues to uncover clues, including paparazzi photos of Stefan with an unidentified blonde and a gym bag full of money. She eventually goes to the police and in a scene that serves as an anticlimactic climax, is encouraged to accept her loss. Earlier, her husband had explained to an interviewer why he felt fortunate to be a film actor. “We need stories to make sense of the world. Otherwise, life is too random.” Katherine has woven a rich, complicated story to make up for her husband’s seemingly random act of self-destruction. Or has she?

Danluck, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed, explains what drew her to this particular story.

“Years ago, someone very close to me took their own life and I held myself responsible in many ways. The feelings of complicity and guilt were overwhelming  —  and completely illogical. Looking outside myself for answers and explanations meant I could create a story about what happened, one that excluded me. I needed to tell myself a story to make sense of what had happened, which is what Katherine does in State Like Sleep.”

Waterston (who is the real-life daughter of Sam Waterston) is really quite good in the film’s leading role, as are the cast’s secondary players. Sadly, the always marvelous Mary Kay Place spends the bulk of her screen time in a drug-induced coma, and neither Michael Shannon nor Luke Evans, vivid whenever they’re on screen, are given enough backstory to explain who they are and what they do. Visually, the film certainly achieves the mood Danluck was after. The scenes at the nightclub, as well as late-night scenes in which Katherine uses her camera to spy on the movie’s other characters (á la Rear Window), are slick and polished and appropriately tense. And, while several sequences feel dark and threatening, Katherine persists. She’s blocked the emotional fallout of her husband’s untimely death for a year. Now, she is determined to face it.

State Like Sleep debuted at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. When asked about the prospects for women directors, Danluck is quick to temper any optimism:

“Hopefully there’s action behind the bluster and talk and more women will get the same opportunities that men do in this industry since the numbers are still pretty dismal … Although it feels like things are changing, we’re still quite far away. We need to hold the industry accountable  — as does everyone in every industry. Hollywood is always in the spotlight as that is its nature, but we are part of a what could be a global shift in awareness about the biases and unfair working conditions that all women and minorities face in every industry.”

More heroines like Sawyer and Katherine are certainly a step in the right direction.

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