Sleepwalker review [complete spoilers] #richardarmitage

This review is split into two pieces: first, a three thousand word complete spoil of the film (part one) as I understood it. It’s not possible to write a review of any item without at least establishing a basis for what the reviewer and the audience saw, although, as I said initially, it’s difficult to do so in this case. I’m not entirely sure any two people would agree on what happened in this film. Second, my comments (part two), also roughly three thousand words. If you have any plans to watch Sleepwalker, I really recommend you do so before reading the summary in part one as it completely spoils the movie. My remarks are spoilery as well, as I need to refer to plot elements to explain my reactions.

I enjoyed this film a lot on first watch, and I can put it in the “love” category on second and third watches. Its meaning to me was immediate, intriguing, and on further watches, compelling. I will gladly revisit it, and without the struggle that keeps me away from Hannibal. even as I’m aware I will need to write about it again. Something that I really appreciated: that I wasn’t just watching for Armitage, as happened in the other indie movies I’ve seen from his 2014-15 period. Pilgrimage infuriated me; Brain on Fire was a flimsy recreation of a poorly conceived book from beginning to end, one that wasn’t really worth the attention it got from me, but this film took me seriously as viewer, something I find rare in the films I see these days and which I haven’t seen in any of Armitage’s screen projects since 2014. Although Scott White falls into the “supporting character” category and is, indeed, simply a fantasy of Sarah’s, I found that heavily accommodating, as Richard Armitage plays a similar role in my life. This is the burning question I’d have liked to ask the real Armitage about.

I. What happens in Sleepwalker?

[Some screencaps in this post are edited to make the subjects more visible.]

Sarah (Ahna O’Reilly), seen in the flashlight of the police officer who finds her on the street, in Sleepwalker.

The film draws the viewer through a series of iterations of the life (apparently) of a woman named Sarah (Ahna O’Reilly). In the first, which lasts about thirteen minutes, she’s the survivor of her husband’s suicide — which we see, briefly. (Several other fans have suggested this scene would spoil the film for Armitage fans, but it’s not his voice in that scene in any case — I think it’s Haley Joel Osment’s — and I thought it was Armitage only because I’d seen a still photograph from that room. I also saw the trailer at least three times and after seeing the film, do not feel the trailer spoils the film — but this conclusion will depend heavily on what you think the film is about.) In this version of her story, Sarah Foster has returned to grad school, and seeks treatment for a sleep disorder. She is “rescued” by a kindly police officer while sleepwalking in a diaphanous white nightgown. She has a particular roommate — Dawn — who wants to go out with one of her instructors and is trying to get Sarah to revive her love life; Sarah glimpses a man she doesn’t know exiting a hearse and ventures that she’d be willing to out with him. Sarah sees an unusually warm therapist, Dr. Cooper (Izabella Scorupco), who recognizes her from a class and due to her husband’s story, and promises to help her. Cut to Sarah waiting at the sleep clinic, where the study is explained to her by Dr. Koslov (Kevin Zegers). She briefly meets Dr. Scott White (Richard Armitage). As night falls, she’s concerned that she won’t be able to sleep, and she calls a passing White to help her with a broken call button. She mentions recognizing him from the funeral; he explains they were burying a student at the center, and when Sarah asks, also that he’s not married. Conversation shifts to Sarah’s late husband, a writer — Sara admits that although she is a literature student she didn’t always love all his writing. White agrees to have Koslov bring a working call button and she falls asleep. Jarring notes in this iteration: Sarah’s odd dress, the over-sympathetic therapist, and White’s shiftiness when asked about the funeral and his marriage.

Sarah (Ahna O’Reilly) resists her professor’s argument that love is the result of a search for a dopamine high, in Sleepwalker.

At thirteen minutes, Sarah wakes up — in a different room. [Retrospectively, I will realize this is the next iteration of the story we’re being told.] White has agreed to follow her case, a “big deal.” They inform her that she did not dream and ask her to return for more sleep testing. Sarah goes to her apartment and puts on another odd dress. We then see her in one of her classes, where a literature professor pontificates on love as a psychological disorder, an obsession rooted in a serotonin imbalance. Sarah disagrees. After he calls her Sarah Wells, we learn that every other source confirms that Sarah’s last name is Wells (her classmates; her roommate; her driver’s license; her diary, which she has to remove from a sealed box; the dedication to her in her husband’s book, which she finds in the library; Cooper’s secretary). This pattern increasingly disquiets her. Back at the sleep clinic, seeking White, who’s not there, she learns that she did have a dream the previous night and filled out a form about it (chased by a woman). She insists it wasn’t her dream or her handwriting, but her own signature suggests it was.

Scott White (Richard Armitage) discusses Sarah’s situation with her in Sleepwalker.

Now at twenty minutes, Sarah is back asleep. We see her eyes move under her eyelids: REM sleep. The iterations of her story change length throughout the film — something that conveys her own disorientation and unsettles the viewer’s own need to assign a shape and a meaning to the story the film tells. When she wakes, White is in her room and asks her what she wanted to talk to him about. She mentions that she was just anxious and “it was nothing.” She doesn’t remember dreaming and oddly, White tells her that she didn’t dream. In the library, wearing a third odd outfit, she seeks out information about her amnesia, eventually asking a man with an odd vibe reading lurking in the stacks, who tells her it could be nothing important (temporary partial retrograde amnesia — induced by traumatic events or disruptive sleep) or it could be psychosis. He suggests they have coffee and she turns away, but is spooked when she sees him again in the stacks. Back at the apartment, her roommate is completely different — Nicole — the point at which I realized that we’ve been in iteration number three since she woke up that morning. Nicole is a different person and has the wrong name but knows about the sleepwalking. Alone, Sarah gets a cell phone call from a scary voice she doesn’t recognize. The voice suggests he’s been stalking her. Back at the therapist’s office, Cooper doesn’t recognize or have any recollection of Sarah, even when prompted with information about Sarah’s husband. Cooper asks about about the Weiss clinic (German cognate for “White”). She flees in controlled distress, and we see her walking the streets with a reddish cloak on. Returning home at night, she bars herself (and that white nightgown) into her room, asserting that she’s Sarah Foster.

Sarah (Ahna O’Reilly) walking from the house that will become a key to her story, in Sleepwalker.

Cut to an FX sequence that implies that she’s sleeping / dreaming again. She’s in a dark house, knocking on some doors, when she’s overtaken from behind and suffocated with a plastic bag. Sarah then wakes up from the nightmare, but she’s not in her room. She exits the house she’s in, looks through a hallway, then exits and examines the mailbox, finds a handwritten letter addressed to “Current Resident,” and then tries to re-enter her apartment: which has Nicole, but someone else in Sarah’s room. Is this part of the dream, or is it narrative iteration number four? She is able to spend the night in a room off the pool, and comes out again in daylight. After she sees the two women in her apartment leave, she takes a brick and smashes the window to her bedroom. There, she finds a picture of someone else on a desk, and dons an outfit that is much too big for her, presumably the usurper’s, eventually binding it down to the right size. She tries to look at the mail. She opens her diary in the sealed box, and finds only the name “Sarah” in it this time. She gets another phone call from the stalker, who says he came to see her last night and asks her if he felt him touching her. She retrieves some pills and some booze and goes to the apartment laundry room, where she retreats to a closet and downs the pills and the booze. This looks to me like a suicide attempt. Cue crescendo as water begins to seep under the door.

Scott White (Richard Armitage) asks Sarah who’s in her apartment now, in Sleepwalker.

Cut: Sarah wakes up from a fetal position. [Iteration number four or five, depending on how you take the previous sequence of events.] She walks past another apartment dweller, who says nothing to her, and back to her apartment, where the window is not smashed. She encounters Dawn leaving the apartment. Sarah tells Dawn after prompting that she was at the sleep center the previous night. Dawn lets her in and explains that she’s off to see her professor — whom Dawn is now dating. She takes a bath, and then we see her clad in another odd clothing combination and biking to the house that was in her dream the previous night. She pauses there, then continues — to White’s house. He’s surprised to see her and in my opinion surprisingly friendly. He turns off his pounding music and listens to her confession: she misremembered her name; she has a different roommate, Cooper didn’t remember who she was. White takes her by the hand and calls Cooper, who does remember her.

“What if it does?” Sarah (Ahna O’Reilly) confronts White (Richard Armitage) in Sleepalwker.

Cue the first really significant conflict of two versions of reality. White says she has unusual sleep patterns but he’s not a psychiatrist, and that the world doesn’t change in that way. Sarah asks, rather aggressively — and on a second watching, I think this is key to at least one reading of the film — “what if it does?” She leaves angrily as the sun is setting. Apparently at home, she gets off her bike when she discovers her stalker, who pursues her on foot as she gets back on the bike. But as she runs away, it’s apparent that her pursuer is White, in his pickup truck. She tells him about the stalker, and he puts her in the passenger seat.

Although he wants her to go to the police, he appears to take her to his home. Inside, White tells Sarah that the identity of the stalker will come to her. He patches up her knee and she tells him she is afraid to fall asleep because everything might change again. As she watches his fire die down, he brings her tea and tells her that dreams are a response to a chemical trigger. The brain releases chemicals that cause an emotional reaction and dreams are a construction to explain the emotion. Sarah says the house in the dream was real. Questioned, she replied that she was angry at the woman who owned the house and both wanted and didn’t want the woman to know she was there.

 

White (Richard Armitage) reassures Sarah (Ahna O’Reilly) that he is going to help her, in Sleepwalker.

 

White insists that Sarah sleep at his house and prepares a bedroom. As she watches the lightning over the mountains, she wonders if she can be helped. At this point the vibe from White changes significantly. Staring deeply into her eyes, he promises to help her and asserts that they will get through it and it will all make sense. It looks for a just a second as if he’s going to kiss her. Next we see her in bed, apparently in borrowed clothing, and they call “night” to each other.

CGI effects imply dreaming: We see a figure wrapped all over in plastic, suspended from all four limbs. Sarah jerks awake. However, this must still be part of the dream as she’s wearing the white nightgown again. She walks into a bedroom where a woman we’ve not yet seen is sleeping. The woman is startled and tells her to go away. Special effects and Sarah jerks awake again, still wearing the white nightgown, and calls for White. She exits the house (and it’s the house from the previous dream). As the sun rises, she walks through Scott’s backyard, still in the white gown, and enters his house. She puts on the clothes from yesterday, but they are much too large.

Ahna O’Reilly (Sarah) is unsettled by the size of the clothes she had been wearing previously when shs puts them on again in Sleepwalker.

Without having seen Scott, Sarah returns to her apartment. This must be the next iteration, either five or six. The window is now broken and covered with cardboard. She goes to the sleep clinic, where she has encounters with Koslov and White — neither of whom recognize her. Indeed, White is an entirely different person (played by Matthew del Negro). “Wrong White” notes that he knows Sarah Wells but our Sarah is not her. She asks him if Sarah Wells is a patient (he can’t say); if he’s married (answer unclear); and if he’s restoring an old house (his response indicates he is). She now flees in greater distress. She storms her classroom, where a quotation about identity is on the screen that suggests that self-knowledge is less important than growth, the instructor says her name, and she encounters the woman from the house, saying “go away.” Outside her apartment, she finds police officers; she locks herself in the room across from the pool again, and the water seeps under the door.

Sarah (Ahna O’Reilly) and “wrong” White (Matthew del Negro) in Sleepwalker.

Snappy cut to Sarah in the sleep clinic, waking up, in the white nightgown. This is where she was supposed to spend the night, although we never saw her go there. This raises the possibility that all of the iterations since four were dreams she had in the sleep clinic. OR — as this is the nightgown, now she is dreaming. This is the next one, either six or seven. Armitage as White is back — he tells her that the police brought her to his house and he brought her to the sleep clinic. She doesn’t remember. She asks him if he’s married or ever has been married; he denies it. She recounts the events from waking up in the house forward through meeting the “wrong” White; he notes that her charts indicate she was dreaming all night. Our White affirms that he is White, and suggests that the dreams are about identity, and that the stalker is an “anchor element,” tying the dream to reality. White asks about her husband’s suicide, but she can’t remember any details about it, despite a year of therapy and journalling about it.

Sarah (Ahna O’Reilly) excavates her journal for confirmation of some reality, any reality, apparently without success, in Sleepwalker.

Back outside her apartment (in yet another outfit, this time one that looks like tapestry wallpaper) Sarah is reading her journal. Her roommate — Nicole — shows up; it doesn’t seem to bother Sarah anymore. In the library catalog, Sarah finds an article about her husband’s death that alleges he was slain by a fan, Warren Lambert. There isn’t a chance to see more of it, because White runs into the area. Confusion over Gray’s death ensues as White says that he learned of the suicide from Sarah; White suggests confirming the facts with Cooper. Sarah says Cooper won’t remember and that she knows he committed suicide. White notes that memories have a way of coming up.

Back at the apartment, the window is again intact. As Sarah walks through her hallway, she is jumped by her stalker. He throws her down on a sofa (as if to rape her?) but it looks like all he has in mind is smothering her with a pillow. She smashes him over the head with a glass and runs into her room. She calls for help. When he can’t get into her room, he trashes the whole apartment. Fade to black.

White (Richard Armitage) attempts to calm Sarah (Ahna O’Reilly) down in Sleepwalker.

Sarah is once against outside her apartment when White appears, in response to her phone call. He comforts her, but when he enters it, nothing has been disturbed. Cooper appears and insists that Sarah needs to be put somewhere for her safety. It also looks like Sarah has submitted another dream description, but she denies it. She then tries to deny that anything happened to avoid being committed, but it’s too late. At the hospital, Sarah has to be dragged into a room and is put in a bed with restraints. White apologizes to her before leaving.

At this point, the delusion spreads to White, as he drives to see Cooper. In their conversation, it emerges that he’s over-involved because he can’t lose another patient. (Implication: the funeral at the beginning was for his patient?). But Cooper doesn’t really know what he’s talking about, doesn’t remember seeing him that day, and has different clothes on. White rushes back to the hospital, where he finds her struggling against the restraints. (There’s a weird line here that implies she’s not in the same room as before.) He removes her and takes her home and puts her in bed. She doesn’t want to sleep, but White spoons her and she falls asleep. When she wakes, still in the hospital gown, she’s pillowed on his chest. Talk about fulfilling fantasy. [!]

Sarah (Ahna O’Reilly) wakes up pillowed on White (Richard Armitage, in Sleepwalker. There’s something really interesting about the respective dimensions of their bodies in this shot.

Next, sitting in his living room, she tells him she remembers that she was stalked by Warren Lambert, an obsessive, subsequently institutionalized, fan of her husband’s, and that she knows he wasn’t really in her apartment. Asked what happened to her husband, Sarah now relates that she discovered him having extramarital sex with another woman in his office after a reading, and that she left him despite his apologies. The woman shot and killed him when he told her the affair was over. Fade to black as she stares out the window and he pets her hair.

White (Richard Armitage) comforts Sarah (Ahna O’Reilly) the morning after he liberates her from the hospital, in Sleepwalker.

In White’s darkened house, someone breaks in while Sarah is nibbling from the kitchen — is this a new iteration or the same story? seven or eight? — and Sarah is again attacked from the rear by someone who wants to suffocate her with a bag. White runs into the room to save her and beats the intruder so badly he has to be transported away in an ambulance. The police confirm that he was “locked up for this once before,” but refer to Sarah as “Ms. Foster” and give her back an ID with that name on it. She shows it to Scott. Partial fade as lovemaking to warm the heart of every fangirl ensues (this is not accidental). She sleeps face to face with him in bed, naked, his arm over her hips; fade to black with a bit of the hillside panorama at night.

Sarah (Ahna O’Reilly) rises from bed in Sleepwalker.

Still in bed, Sarah gets up in the white nightgown. She sleepwalks through the streets and into the sleep clinic, where she sees the other woman dreaming during a sleep study. CGI effects cut. She’s back in the strange house, with the other woman in bed — she asks who the woman is but she yells at Sarah to go away. Sarah leaves the house and walks through the rain, back to the sleep clinic, where the woman sees Sarah. But the “wrong” White appears and it’s clear that the other woman sees Sarah as a hallucination (keeping in mind this is still Sarah’s dream). Our White appears and asks Sarah what’s going on, but the “wrong” White doesn’t see our White, either — he too is a hallucination of the other woman. Our White tells Sarah that there has to be a reason that the other woman is dreaming of her, and he begins to look for evidence. He finds a video of the other woman describing her experience of Sarah invading her house at night and watching her sleep.

Cut to final iteration [?] of Sarah walking through the rain to her husband’s office — the original story we’ve been trying to elucidate the whole time. Except Armitage / White is now Jonathan, and he tells her he’s calling the police. As he begs her not to do it, she shoots him with a small caliber handgun.

Out of the iteration, Sarah tells White that the other woman is dreaming of her because she, Sarah, is the other woman’s nightmare. White insists there has to be an explanation. Sarah explains that she loved Gray but wasn’t his wife — whose name was Anna.

Cut back to final iteration — Sarah shoots herself.

Sarah (Ahna O’Reilly) tells White that she made him in order to help herself see the truth, in Sleepwalker.

Out of the iteration, Sarah admits that she remembers all this, and that when she was done the next thing she remembered was seeing White walking toward her, and that this was where she wanted to be, somewhere warm. White then tells her that they must be experiencing a fugue state. She counters that “it’s love. I made you. Maybe so that I could see that I, so that I could find the truth. So that I could see what I had done. But I didn’t know that I would find you again. I don’t want this to end.” They kiss.

CGI effects — brutal cut. We see split-second flashes of many scenes from the film. Sarah is in a hospital bed on a ward (for non-US watchers: implies charity hospital or uninsured patient), in an oxygen mask, and is having some kind of seizure. An attendant rushes to the bed — it is Haley Joel Osment. (The first time I saw this, this was the point at which I recognized him.) Her eyes are moving in REM and water is dripping through the ceiling onto her toe. Osment caresses her face inappropriately, and tells her not to worry, calling her Anna.

Cut to O’Reilly walking, with voice over: “My name is Sarah Foster.” Implication: infinite loop?

II: Review of Sleepwalker

I was a regular, frequent sleepwalker as a child, and still occasionally sleepwalk — maybe once every two years or so. I can’t tell you how devastating it is to lose control in this way. As an adult, I have twice woken up outside my apartment after dressing and unlocking my door. But I never remember any dreams, and I have never had the “adventures” Sarah has. Moreover, the only hallucination I have ever experienced occurred in library stacks that looked a lot like the ones in this film. Particularly during the comprehensive exam and writing phases, I knew many graduate students who were suffering from various sleep disturbances and/or issues with anxiety, so that piece of the film rang very true to me. And finally, although I’m sure this statement will be misconstrued, I’m a fan with a lot of fantasies. Although I’ve never been tempted to stalk or murder anyone, I definitely recognized and sympathized with fantasies I encountered in Sarah’s many iterations of her story. This background definitely colored my reaction to the film. I can identify with some aspects of Sarah’s experience as fan, and some of her fantasies, without having to embrace all of them.

***

Elliott Lester’s Sleepwalker, a psychological thriller with a Gordian knot at its heart, also offers an unsettling, de-centering meditation on the nature of perception and reality that throws up the question again and again: how do we know who we are? How do we know who anyone else is? How do we respond to the problem that reality around is always changing, never stable?

Sarah (Ahna O’Reilly) confirms her identity by looking in a book, in Sleepwalker. This could have been a metaphor for my life a few years ago.

I said in my initial impressions that I wasn’t sure any two people would necessarily agree on the resolution to the plot. Here are five options:

  • The film — increasingly after the scene where Sarah has the dream she doesn’t remember about a woman chasing her, until the very end — seems to want us to think that Sarah is a “fan gone wrong” of a writer named Jonathan Gray, and the iterations of events are Sarah’s fantasies or at least her dreams while unconscious. This reading, however, is complicated by the fact that the woman we know as Sarah is labeled “Anna” in the final scene.
    • variant: Sarah is a typical stressed-out graduate student and the film reflects perceptions from her psychotic break after her studies have overwhelmed her.
  • There’s an at least equally plausible reading to me that all of these iterations result from Haley Joel Osment’s fantasy. This reading is suggested to me by his identification of the patient in the bed at the end as Anna, as well as the fact that it’s the stalker’s voice at the beginning in Gray’s office, in the scene that everyone seems to think spoils the film (I did not). The final scene in the fairly frightening hospital ward is thus merely the framing to that scenario, and is itself not “real.” This reading is signaled by the old fashioned equipment, the ward setting, and the dripping water.
  • Less compelling to me, but equally plausible, assuming the identification of the woman in the bed at the end is correct: Anna is unconscious after recent events and these are her dreams about Sarah. Sarah herself broaches this explanation in one of the iterations.
  • It doesn’t make sense to me as a covering narrative for the entire film, but there is a sense in which pieces of this film portray a particular kind of fantasy that I’ve found common among some mental health professionals I’ve known — the savior fantasy — even as it steps over the ethical line in this particular portrayal of it, which points out that sometimes patients share in this fantasy. So it might make sense to consider the possibility that this film is in part Scott White’s fantasy, perhaps a fantasy of recovery as he states he’s lost a patient. Seen in that light, Sarah is the patient he is going to “fix” in the same way that he’s restoring his house.
  • The sci-fi / world as simulacrum of horror possibility — that the elements of the story are some sort of infinite loop, a series of events that the incapacitated figure on the bed at the end experiences over and over again without the possibility of escape. A number of indices point to this: the dripping water, the writing of Sarah’s name in the diary which suggests that she has always already been through some kind of doubt about her identity, the aggressive signaling of the number eleven, the way that Sarah repeats “I am Sarah Foster” although we never get any data at all about who Sarah Foster is.

Sarah (Ahna O’Reilly) looks at her driver’s license and confirms an identity that she had earlier thought was the result of amnesia, in Sleepwalker.

My feeling: in order to interpret the film, we need some kind of consensus on what happens in it, but the consensus does not lie in agreement about the substance of the plot: what happens. Rather, the film asks us to accept that all of what we see is the result of someone’s fantasy — including, crucially, the frame story, which is itself not credible — and we don’t even know whose fantasy it is in the end. No version of events in the film is more real or more authoritative than any other one. Moreover, the inundating welter of details and events and the confusion about dreaming vs waking vs sleepwalking are necessary to convince us that understanding events is the wrong way to view the film. If the narrative had been less complex — if it had tried to allow itself to be susceptible to a coherent narrative interpretation, no matter how complex — the film would have degenerated into allegory and become intolerable to watch as we would have been drawn into pointless judgments about whether Sarah’s behavior is “appropriate” or “healthy” or “realistic.” Only by refusing to tell us what happened or complicating events to the point of unintelligibility can the film sustain the legitimacy of her perspective throughout.

This perspectival strategy is different from those in Swinging Doors (1998), which builds parallel universes to trace different paths through a particular day, or Rashōmon (1950), in which we see contradictory perspectives on a single narrative, to cite two familiar examples. Those films both use the human mind’s desire to rationalize and reconcile as a strategy for drawing the viewer in; both films imply that we can understand. In contrast, Sleepwalker does the opposite — by about thirty minutes in, it was clear to me that my need to explain what happened was being used by the film to confuse me about from the events the film describes. The mind insists on one “real” story, the film seems to say, but no stories are real. In order to enjoy the film, the viewer needs both to be unsettled by her inability to understand easily what is going on and to grow to accept that while there are certain patterns, in the end she cannot fully understand. This gradual marketing of the plausibility of a universal irreality is how the film draws the viewer in. Sarah’s struggle to understand is our struggle — but even she cannot understand in the end.

A sort of smarmy quote about identity under discussion in Sarah’s class in Sleepwalker.

As the film keeps telling us explicitly that it is about identity, and the narrative exposes particular fantasies in increasing detail as they relate to Sarah’s conflicting notions of who she is, I’m willing to take those emphases at its word. Seen from that perspective, I found the classical Freudian exposition of identity (id – superego – ego) executed deftly, with the feel of it subtle, almost subconscious, even as the film ultimately explodes it. Sarah dreaming expresses her desire; the mental health professionals provide a(n increasingly insistent) structure for her outbursts; and Sarah waking tries to mediate between these perspectives and understand them. Throughout the iterations of her story, waking and sleeping Sarah seem to move gradually closer together (which is one of the challenges of ego in the Freudian triad, to control id without suppressing it) only to have this relationship exploded in the last scene. The implication is that identity integration, as hard as we work at it and as much as we fantasize that resort to (healthy, supportive, explanatory) superego can be the solution, is task fraught with failures. Sarah employs all the classic strategies for determining who she is — identifying her feelings, asking about her relationships with other people, asking about their relationships (is White married?), querying remnants from her history like the diary, even consulting public and official documents with her name on them. In the end, all Sarah has as “herself” is her body — but even it changes name.

Sarah (Ahna O’Reilly) discovers her “wrong” name already written in her old diary, in Sleepwalker.

In this light, the perspective of the fan seemed particularly well identified as a structure for understanding the question of identity formation. As we’ve discussed many times on this blog, one of the tasks of fandom seems to be the creation and support of personal identity. We create stories about our crushes, and we reshape those stories to fit our needs, as a tool for figuring out “what’s real,” even as we know that we cannot have the object that we are creating and realize that “what’s real” lies outside our grasp. The fan’s power to shape is not infinite, though it can be a source of infinite frustration. In particular, I found fascinating the repeated ways in which Sarah tries to make reality conform to her fantasies, though it fails to do so. I also found the repetitive iterations of her life essential to this process, because it’s exactly how my own fantasy life works. I have an idea that starts me on a narrative, but there are realistic elements that continue competing with the narrative. I rehearse the story in my mind to see if I can get past the facts. (I discussed this dilemma recently with regard to Richlee.) Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t at all. The result are increasingly fantastic narratives that have no bearing on reality — because they are not about reality. So one of the possibilities that I saw in this film is that Sarah starts to build a larger and larger edifice via the iterations of her story, one that topples of its own weight as we realize that it’s all being created by a woman in a bed named “Anna.”

The chilling last scene — Anna or Sarah? Screencap from Sleepwalker.

Scott White is one of the primary tools of Sarah’s fantasy about the mental health care professionals in the film. To me, these figures seemed entirely fantastic. I have never met a therapist who seemed as comforting or affirming as Dr. Cooper does, and if I did, I’d assume I was the one with the delusion or else that I was being condescended to. But the fantasy of loving, caring reassurance is real, even as it disturbs. On the most plausible readings of the film for me, White is entirely a figure of Sarah’s fantasy; he exists only to give her what she wants. So it rings all my alarm bells when he almost kisses her, when he climbs into bed to “help her sleep,” when he ends up making love to her after (her fantasy that?) she was assaulted. Real doctors should not do this, but fantasy ones can and do, and White’s own occasional discomfort with her demands (his distance at their first meetings, his insistence that reality cannot change, his withdrawal from the almost kiss, and so on) is also a story she is telling herself about him, a way that she makes him more real by giving him behaviors a real doctor would have. And so all my bells ring on another level, that of the fan who fantasizes about all kinds of things that don’t correspond to my conscious perspectives. I don’t want my real neurologist to pursue me in a truck to save me from danger; but I do want my fantasy neurologist to do so. I don’t want to get in bed with a near stranger who’s treating me for a sleep disorder, but the fantasy of doing so is increasingly seductive. Or looking at it from White’s perspective, there is an awareness that ethics and evidence prevent doctors from interfering in their patients’ lives this way but also a fantasy that doing so could be beneficial — a fantasy that is so compelling because it can unite the desires of id and the insistent authority of (a deluded) superego.

One of those moments — White (Richard Armitage) responds affirmately and positively to the news from Sarah that “she made him.” Screencap from Sleepwalker.

Which brings me to Armitage, who’s really in a supporting role. The challenge here is that he plays a character created in the imagination of another character — one who is simultaneously her late husband and not her late husband and her doctor and her lover, a melange of desire and obsession and refuge who may or may not be the real Scott White. I almost laughed when I saw him affirm that he is Scott White — for this, too, is Sarah’s fantasy. Or at least Scott White is someone else entirely for “the other woman,” a fascinating philosophical problem that I might discuss in further remarks about this film. I don’t know how Armitage chooses these scripts or how explicitly he decides to confront the identity problems involved in playing a character, but I found really interesting the way he executes this conflict, for instance, by not responding negatively to her invasion of his privacy at home [patients: do not do this!] and gently taking her hand, but also calling Dr. Cooper and trying to insist that reality is unified and fixed. He has her committed to the hospital (surely not the easiest fantasy for her to have, but not an unusual one, and the problem of being coerced is a common one in dreams), then tenderly sits at her bedside and strokes her hair while she struggles against restraints. This is a weird conflict to have to mediate in a character and a personality — as a fantasy that has to be believable from the perspective of the person having the fantasy but so clearly breaks every single rule of what is professionally acceptable. I thought he did it well — a sort of odd combination of uncomfortable and evasive, but loving and conforming to exactly what she wants at every turn, even joining her own “delusions” as doing so becomes necessary for the narrative. Armitage somehow makes it possible for me to be disquieted when he reaches Sarah a comforting cup of a warm drink — a soothing and an undermining move at the same time.

White (Richard Armitage) gives Sarah some tea. Although it looks like she’s clinging to the connection, it’s just a simple exchange. Screencap from Sleepwalker.

There are a few things I enjoyed here that I’m not discussing — the tones of the interiors, the cinematography, Anna O’Reilly’s performance. It was a great decision to cast Osment in this role and not at all what I expected. There were also a few things I didn’t like. I thought the playing with Sarah’s costumes (allusions to Alice in Wonderland?) was obvious, weird, and annoying. I didn’t care for the intrusion of the special effects, which I assume were created with budget constraints, insofar as they had the opposite effect on me than the one I think they were supposed to convey.

But they were minor in comparison to my immense enjoyment of the film, and the way that every symbol and every story seemed to point simultaneously in multiple directions. The film seems to see this as a sort of prison we are all trapped in — an inability to choose between versions of reality, none of which is in itself real. The chilling end is enhanced not least by the murder story behind it, although this problem is created at least in part by generic convention. I’m more sanguine on that point, I suppose. Not every fantasy ends in murder. But the fragmentation of our identities as we navigate between both our fantasies and the different strategies we employ to establish our control of reality is a matter of endless fascination for me, and one that this film treats with complexity and subtlety.

~ by Servetus on October 12, 2017.

10 Responses to “Sleepwalker review [complete spoilers] #richardarmitage”

  1. Thank you! I love this mind provoking film. So many symbols and different interpretations. Fantastic performance from Ahna O’Reilly ( another underestimated actor) and Richard. And yes, Richard is the right man to dream about ❤️

  2. excellent! There is so much to dwell on in this movie, it kept you wanting to find out what was going on. This is the first of many roles I have enjoyed RA in in a long time and O’Reilly was excellent.

    • Thank you for your review of this film! I watched the movie once and was completely confused and left wondering what the heck just happened? I was told to watch it again, which I will do. I guess I wasnt prepared for it to be as deep or psychological as it was. Let’s face it, Richard’s last few films were not very cerebral, no criticism here, I love his acting, but Brain on Fire was a disappointment to me as was Pilgrimage. I always say he is a way better actor then the roles he plays….but I digress. At least now, when I watch this movie again, I’ll have a better understanding and see it with new eyes….(I hope) 🤔

      • Thanks for the comment and welcome. I don’t think there are any good answers to some of the questions the film raises but you are certainly welcome to come back here and discuss it. I think discussion of the film is hard because the plot is so confusing.

    • I’m glad you felt that way. I agree re: this is a project / role that intrigued me in a positive way, which hasn’t been the case (for me) since LLL.

  3. […] So, in order to appreciate this post, you absolutely have to first read, and perhaps go back to this post, on Me and Servetus, because that’s where you’ll find the plot, along with her […]

  4. Thank you for your review, Serv, plenty to think about when I get to see the movie. 🙂

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