‘State Like Sleep’ Film Review: Katherine Waterston and Michael Shannon Float Through Enigmatic Neo-Noir

A top-notch ensemble — which also includes Luke Evans and Mary Kay Place — and talented craftspeople are saddled with a limp narrative

State Like Sleep
The Orchard

As hazy and amorphous as a rain cloud, Meredith Danluck’s “State Like Sleep” does a fine job of recreating the dream-like fog of grief. But it doesn’t go much further, and “somnolence” isn’t an ideal quality around which to build an entire film.

As played by Katherine Waterston (“Fantastic Beasts”), American photographer Katherine has been floating dully since her Belgian movie star husband, Stefan (Michiel Huisman, “Game of Thrones”), was mysteriously killed a year earlier. But when her mom (Mary Kay Place) winds up in a Brussels hospital, Katherine is jolted into action. She wants to know what really happened to Stefan, and the more she looks, the less she finds to like.

Stefan’s severe mother, Anneke (Julie Khaner, “Leap!”), appears to be an open book: she bluntly hates her daughter-in-law, whom she blames for stealing her beloved son. A series of effective flashbacks also suggests that she was the Momager from Hell, though could she have been twisted enough to hurt Stefan for any reason?

Meanwhile, it’s hard to say whether Stefan’s best friend, Emile (Luke Evans), had any motivation. But as the ultra-sleazy owner of a kinky underground club, he’s certainly got the amorality.

And what’s the story with Edward (Michael Shannon), the enigmatic businessman staying in Katherine’s hotel? His flirtations seem dangerous, and why does he turn up at Emile’s weird club?

The biggest problem with “State Like Sleep” is that it prefers asking these questions to answering them. It’s fun — or at least diverting — to try and solve them for a while, but eventually every twisty road just dead-ends.

As a result, the cast works very hard to little purpose. Shannon’s character is too ill-defined to exploit his charisma, and an always-welcome Evans can only hint at a darkness that’s never explored. Given the vibrancy Waterston has shown in other noirish projects — “Inherent Vice” remaining the most memorable of many — it seems a waste to direct her towards the general embodiment of “wan.” She amply succeeds in conveying Katherine’s physical and psychic overwhelm, but there’s nowhere for her to go once she’s hit her marks.

This being the case, the slack has to be picked up elsewhere. A vivid Place is terrific in her brief scenes, the epitome of an experienced performer determined to breathe some life into an unfocused production. Sought-after DP Christopher Blauvelt (“Mid90s”) continues to prove his talents, adding depths visually where the script neglects them thematically. And the moody score from indie composer David Wingo (“Loving”) and ambient musician Jeff McIlwain carries more than its share of weight.

Danluck (“North of South, West of East”) gets us halfway there, with a solid cast and crew, an apt depiction of emotional exhaustion, and a heroine we want to root for in a strange setting we’re ready to embrace. But she floats too ineffectually between dream and nightmare, never settling on one or committing to the other. And when we’re ready to return to reality, it’s regrettably easy to forget everything that came before.