For most of its running time, "The Sleepwalker" is a very compelling and intriguing mystery/drama. It centers on a young couple, Kaia (Gitte Witte) and her boyfriend Andrew (Christopher Abbott), who are attempting to do major restorations on a rural house that Kaia has inherited from her father. At first glance, the two lead a normal life: they laugh, engage in minor disputes, make love and, in general, seem to be in a stable relationship. Their lives become unbalanced, however, with the unexpected arrival of Kaia's half-sister Christine (Stephanie Ellis), a wayward soul with a free spirit and a quirky, unsettling personality. She arrives in the dead of night and announces to Kaia that she is pregnant. Christine makes herself at home in the house she once shared with Kaiva. It becomes clear that both young women, who have different mothers, have very diverse opinions of their deceased father. Kaia is defensive of him while Christine denounces him as a bully and implies he might have engaged in abusing the girls on some level. With Christine's arrival, Kaia takes on the role of mother, as much as older sister, and tries to control Christine's unpredictable behavior and impulses. Christine is outspoken and feels free to critique those around her, regardless of how inappropriate her comments may be. Andrew is clearly disturbed by her presence and wants her out of the house as soon as possible. However, things become more complicated with the arrival of Ira (Brady Corbet), Christine's exasperated boyfriend and father of her forthcoming child. Ira is as much a parental figure to the immature Christine as he is her lover. He and Andrew take an immediate dislike to each other. Andrew, who has a blue collar background, resents the highly educated Ira for what he feels to be his condescending attitude toward him. The two men have an awkward relationship that is made even more strained by Ira and Christine's request to extend their stay at the house. The situation becomes even more tense as Kaiva tries to deal with Christine's psychological problems which include an eerie habit of sleepwalking and engaging unknowingly in shocking acts such as masturbating in front of others. Kaia is well aware of Christine's mental problems, but her obsession with protecting her seems to go beyond that of a concerned sister. In fact, the two seem almost uncomfortably close in the physical sense. They doff their clothes in front of each other and they snuggle together in the same bed in a manner that approaches a mutually erotic attraction. In terms of the group dynamics, the two young couples attempt to have fun through dancing and drinking, tensions continue to mount. The relationship between Andrew and Ira leads to a shocking act of violence that coincides with Christine's mysterious disappearance from the house. Kaia, Ira and Andrew search frantically for her and even notify the police, but it's all to no avail.
"The Sleepwalker" has many admirable aspects. It represents an impressive feature film directing debut for Mona Fastvold, who previously directed music videos. Fastvold has an eye for composing tension-filled situations and gets top performances from a supremely talented cast of largely unknown actors. The film also boasts some very impressive camerawork by Zack Galler and a haunting musical score by Sondre Loche and Kato Adland. However, it is Fastvold the screenwriter who runs into problems. Working with a script co-written by Brady Corbet, who plays Ira, the compelling story line waivers between a Gen X version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (i.e couples reveal uncomfortable truths about themselves and each other during a tension-filled evening of socializing) and a potential slasher film, as we gird ourselves for what we believe will be some unpredictable act of violence caused by Christine, who is a menacing presence throughout the film. However, the movie's merits are undermined by a completely unsatisfactory ending that leaves most of the key questions unanswered and is so ambiguous as to be incomprehensible. (After watching the final scene several times, I actually consulted other reviews of the film to see if I was simply too stupid to "get it". I found that other reviewers had the same reaction I had.) This seems to be a trend in modern movie-making: leave the audience feeling frustrated and cheated. Ambiguity in the finale of a film can be an attribute. A perfect example revolves around the motivations of the seemingly crazed music teacher played by J.K. Simmons in "Whiplash". Everyone I know who has seen it likes debating whether his final actions in the film were an act of retribution or benevolence. However, there are other films, such as "The Sleepwalker", wherein the ambiguity looks like pretentious gibberish. The movie ends so abruptly that one might suspect that the financing dried up and they had fifteen minutes in which to wrap up the entire production. By taking this tact, the screenwriters negate many of the admirable aspects of the film, which are plentiful. "The Sleepwalker" isn't the only movie to feature a completely unsatisfying ending. "No Country for Old Men" rides along brilliantly until the final scene, which appears to have been the result of a wrong reel having been inserted into the film. Up to that point, it is a brilliant piece of work but its impact is severely negated by a boring and seemingly "out-of-left-field" ending that many viewers complained left them cheated. There are numerous other films that have been indulging in this trend, which is baffling. Why would a director want to leave an audience resentful and unsatisfied, feeling that they have just wasted their time watching an otherwise admirable movie?
"The Sleepwalker" serves as a showcase for some impressive up-and-coming talent. It's too bad they didn't close the deal and produce a movie that lived up to its potential. The film has been released on DVD by MPI Home Video. The edition features a creepy original trailer and some truncated interviews with the director and cast culled from some footage shot for the film's screening at Sundance. Perhaps appropriately, the interviews- like the film itself- end too abruptly to be satisfying.