In Mona Fastvold’s debut feature, The Sleepwalker, Kaia (Gitte Witt) and Andrew (Christopher Abbott) are a young couple who have recently began residing in the former’s paternal house, a remote and gargantuan building surrounded with untamed nature and filled with remnants of a family whose dysfunctions are plain even in small, dusty photographs. Their serene stay consists of a gradual attempt at renovating the place, which is cut short by the abrupt entrance of Kaia’s sister, Christine (Stephanie Ellis). Christine is a troubled young woman whose nervous gestures betray something deeply broken inside her. Shortly after it is revealed that she is pregnant, her fiancé, Ira (Brady Corbet) also arrives, completing a quartet that is no less problematic than the original family.
Christine is soon proved to be the sleepwalker of the title, though not before an increasingly uncomfortable dinner-table conversation reveals a mysterious past relationship between her and Andrew. The primary force of the plot is the mystery surrounding their childhood and their potentially abusive father. The large burn marks on Kaia’s body are particularly a source of intrigue: possibly the result of a violent fire set to the home’s garage by Christine or a severe punishment by their absent father, or perhaps some other unknown secret the film cares little to expand upon.
These mysterious elements allow Fastvold – who co-wrote the film with Corbet – to create an eerie ambience that feels genuinely terrifying at times. One particular sequence, in which Andrew leaves the house for the next-door garage at night induces horror with such nonchalant ease that one wonders what could have been if a first-time director of such confidence had better material on paper to work with. For every moment of brilliance as such, there is one in which a clichéd horror trope is used to pointless effect – a knife for a birthday gift!
As the film progresses, the tenuous relationship between Andrew and the newcomers sours further and finally reaches a tipping point after Christine disappears during one of her sleepwalking sessions. Like any other thriller with pretensions of cool, there are suggestive moments of sexuality, all of which look exciting until one stops to realize that none of them make any sense in the grand scheme of things. Why we see Christine masturbate in her sleep is not meant so much to have any meaning as it is to create a vague sense of curiosity in the audience. Yet, ambiguity, creepy and uneasy as it might be, does not a great horror film make.
Corbet and Abbott – who both deliver strong performances – have previously co-starred in another inappropriately sexual, coolly stylized thriller with hazy characterizations and an open ending, but the difference between the two films is staggering. The untied narrative threads in that earlier collaboration – Martha Marcy May Marlene – emphasized the story’s sense of unending terror, hence leaving the audience with a feeling of inescapability. Here, the story feels lazily unfinished because of these loose ends. In attempting to subvert our expectations of the genre, The Sleepwalker concerns itself with formal details and momentary pleasures that cannot mask the film’s regrettable lack of thematic depth.