Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Chasing Sleep

Chasing Sleep (2001)
Dir. Michael Walker
Written: Michael Walker
Starring Jeff Bridges Daniels, Gil Bellows, Zach Grenier

Heeeeeereeeee's Jeffy!
     Recently I discovered a cache of old screeners back from my glory days as an indie video store employee. I’d forgotten all about them, but apparently when I left the job I took with me a stack of DTV screeners that I’d meant to watch but never got around to. Like most of the DTV indie screeners that were circulating in the late 90’s and early 2000s, I was pretty sure that most of them would be complete trash, but a few looked tempting enough to take a quick look. What the hell, I put it off for an entire decade, might as well follow through on my 17-year-old self’s intention of sifting through hours of drivel in search of hidden gold (remember how much fun we had watching THE ETERNAL KISS OF THE MUMMY?). I grabbed the first one in the pile, depicting a crazy looking Jeff Daniels peeking around the corner at a bathtub with a bloody handprint over it*. What compelled me to pick this up sometime in late 2001, I don’t know, but it looked like it had some vague potential to be some kind of arty crime thriller, maybe one of those tiresome Tarantino knock-offs everyone seemed to be churning out back then. Turns out, it’s a bit more interesting than that.

    CHASING SLEEP has many of the hallmarks of this period in independent film, after the floodgates had opened to passionate indie filmmakers using private funding to put together their dream project, but before most of them really figured out how to make films good. It has one recognizable star surrounded by mostly obscure (local?) actors who are noticeably not as good. It has some needless showy stylistic flourishes which now look pretty trite and embarrassing. It has some pretty iffy lighting and only one major location, which I would guess is probably the director’s house. But it also has one thing going for it that most of the films in this pile probably do not: it’s actually pretty good.

"A taught, tense action thriller! -- FOX TV"

    Hey, sometimes the Republicans are right, sometimes Bigfoot posts nude pictures of himself on the internet, and sometimes the system works the way it’s supposed to. Director Michael Walker (nothing) really put together a movie here which he could never have made through the studio, but manages to use the limited resources of an indie film production to really create something distinctive and affecting. I’m as surprised as you are, but there it is.

    There’s not a lot of plot to CHASING SLEEP. Jeff “Not Bridges” Daniels plays a college professor who can’t seem to sleep, no matter what he does. He’s lying in bed one night, staring at the hole in his bedroom ceiling caused by his leaking pipes, when he suddenly realizes his wife hasn’t come home yet. He calls her friends to see if he can find her, calls the cops, talks to a couple people about the situation. But mostly he just putters around the house, trying to keep it together.

    Bridges Daniels is fantastic in the role, perfectly exuding that state of utter mental and physical exhaustion and creeping unreality which comes from worry, depression, and lack of sleep. He can keep a conversation up, but everything seems very slightly distorted, as if he’s responding from a very long way away. Time seems to have no meaning. Sometimes a simple trip across a room seems to take unbearably long, other times he’ll have a late-night dinner and suddenly discover that it’s the following morning. Things seem weird and off, even before he finds a severed human finger under the bathtub and then it crawls away. And of course, there’s the constantly leaking pipes everywhere, crumbling and decaying the walls and spilling into almost every corner of his life.

I bet that symbolizes something.

    What does it all mean? Walker’s not telling. There are enough details for you to draw some informed suspicions, but to his credit Walker never really answers the questions definitively, nor does he ever entirely reveal how much of this is literally happening. It could all be real, or it could all be a dream, or anywhere on the spectrum in-between. The literal meaning of it isn’t so important as the creepy, melancholy, dreamlike vibe of the thing. And it really nails that. I saw a few reviews which seemed frustrated at the film’s stubborn refusal to give you an objective truth, but jesus guys, that’s the whole point. It perfectly captures that early David Lynch pulse of suburban normalcy suddenly pierced by the macabre and bizarre. Call it Twin Peaks in a house. It starts innocently enough, but slowly --almost imperceptibly-- a gnawing darkness eats away at it until it’s completely consumed, and the viewer along with it.

There are some admittedly amateurish qualities to it, but in a film like this the only thing that really matters is that its current is strong enough to sweep you up into it. Daniels’ work here has to be some of the best of his career, and Walker (aside from a few gimmicky missteps) shows the maturity to slowly and steadily build complexity into his film, so that it’s constantly developing but never resorts to cheap twists or shocks. It’s a gripping, unsettling nightmare that also contains a grain of genuine human truth -- perhaps more than any other film I’ve seen, it manifests that corrosive simmering panic of waiting through the lonely night for someone to return. For a DTV film from that era, a very rare thing indeed.

*Needless to say, nothing like this happens in the movie.

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