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Review: Slow Machine Bears Oblique Witness to a Paranoid Actress’s Life

The film navigates a tricky space between pathos and absurdity and often turns on a dime from one to the other.

Slow Machine
Photo: Grasshopper Film

After a brief, lyrical prologue set to ominous mechanical noises and a whispered reading of Phillip Larkin poetry, the first thing we see and hear in Joe Denardo and Paul Felten’s Slow Machine is a woman (Catherine Cohen) blurting non sequiturs on the phone in between fits of laughter. She colonizes her apartment’s living room with no apparent regard for the effect of this racket on her roommates, before exclaiming all of a sudden that her “whole body is swollen.” She then lets out another cackle that morphs into an expression of despair and the film abruptly cuts away from her. It’s an aptly discombobulating vignette with which to begin this slippery New York-set character study, which navigates a tricky space between pathos and absurdity and often turns on a dime from one to the other.

One of two witnesses to this phone call is Stephanie (Stephanie Hayes), an underground theater actor getting out of a bad living situation. Easy to talk to but hard to get to know, and prone to episodes of playacting, Stephanie is the kind of person who drifts indiscriminately from one social circle to the next, reinventing herself along the way. She’s the focus of Slow Machine, though the film’s shuffled editing and coarse textures often feel devised for embodying her incongruities rather than probing them from a safe distance.

Shot on high-grain 16mm and often at such close proximity to the actors as to render them blurry abstractions, Slow Machine is willfully obtuse, tumbling between stray moments in time without providing clear cause-and-effect relationships. Denardo and Felten populate the screen with characters who spin tales that are impossible to corroborate, plunging the viewer into verbose dialogues about events and characters we never see.

Upon leaving the laughing girl’s apartment, Stephanie hitches a ride upstate to crash at the creative sanctuary of Jim (Ean Sheehy) and Eleanor (Fiery Furnaces’s Eleanor Friedberger, essentially playing herself), two musicians who cautiously welcome her into their orbit of expat Brooklyn artists. But before any relationships or conflicts can develop in this new milieu, the filmmakers rewind the narrative to a couple weeks prior, effectively cutting short our glimpse at Stephanie’s ostensibly therapeutic new beginning. The last image we see of her before the flashback shows her peering through a garage window as her new housemates rehearse a song, establishing a theme of surveillance that will materialize in different ways throughout the film, most notably in the cryptic figure of Gerard (Scott Shepherd).

Alternately ominous and affable, the suit-and-tie-clad Gerard claims to be an NYPD counter-terrorism officer, but when he takes Stephanie in after finding her blacked out from a night of drinking, his casual delivery of the news that she may be in serious trouble calls into question the veracity of his alleged credentials. Clarity regarding the exact nature of Gerard’s identity and intentions never comes, though Stephanie goes along with his suggested safety measures regardless, which ultimately amount to him swindling her into spending time with him. Slow Machine’s most electric scenes tease out this weirdly evolving dynamic—part genuine mutual curiosity, part Stockholm syndrome—as the two get to know each other in a series of underlit, under-furnished white rooms, the simplicity of the staging and the gameness of Hayes’s and Shepherd’s acting lending the tête-a-têtes the charged feel of black-box theater.

As it happens, local theater is a primary topic of conversation between the two, with Gerard professing an interest in the experimental scene and inquiring about Stephanie’s upcoming roles (Hayes has worked extensively in New York theater herself). At one point, Gerard insists Stephanie give him a sneak peek of a new character she’s preparing—a vulgar Texan on the lam—and she obliges by slipping into the persona at such length and with such commitment that he can’t help but play along—a joint act that soon takes on an aura of authenticity. Later, when that surprisingly convincing regional accent (Stephanie is a native Swede) reemerges at her temporary upstate home, it raises a question: Is this kind of performative immersion merely a reflection of her commitment to her chosen profession, or the defense mechanism of a woman working through a string of traumas and the nature of her own identity?

In its final act, Slow Machine gestures toward an answer to that question, but a film in which the only recognizable star, Chloë Sevigny, appears for just one puzzling scene (describing a strange audition experience that may or may not be true) is simply not genetically predisposed to providing any kind of closure for the audience. And that’s fine, because such indeterminacy is thrilling when it’s bolstered by a lead performer as mesmerizingly dedicated as Hayes, who commands Denardo and Felten’s lengthy close-ups with an intrepid, self-effacing frankness that masks her character’s ongoing turbulence (as in the late scene of Stephanie fielding Jim’s hackneyed advances without offering even a moment of eye contact). And she’s paired with scene partners who relish the knotty turns of Felten’s script, resulting in dialogues that brim with nervous energy and narrative possibility. The film marries the conspiratorial air of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 with the confessional immediacy of John Cassavetes’s work, and in its best moments floats free of its influences to occupy its own uniquely volatile space.

Cast: Stephanie Hayes, Scott Shepherd, Ean Sheehy, Eleanor Friedberger, Catherine Cohen, Chloë Sevigny, Knieper Clemens, Will Lawrence, Emily Tremaine Director: Joe Denardo, Paul Felten Screenwriter: Paul Felten Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 72 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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