The Sleepwalker is one of those psychological dramas in which a smattering of dysfunctional family members wind up enclosed in a remote cabin, stewing in their concentrated misery in such a fashion as to provoke a long-overdue catharsis. This sort of film is so specific and reliable, particularly in Europe, that it’s even inspired its own Christopher Guest parody (as a film within the narrative of The Big Picture). And it’s this familiarity that softens The Sleepwalker’s intended emotional intensity, as one can almost intuitively sense what’s going to happen before it does, and not just what, but how it’s going to happen. The remote cabin in the woods, the lake, the fashionably ambiguous dialogue, the obligatorily inappropriate sexual tension, and the earthy green and blue hues of the cinematography all connote a potentially narcotizing sense of classically inherited tragedy. At its worst, the film serves as a reminder that unhappiness has born just as many clichés as happiness.
But the film soon settles into a confident, well-staged groove, primarily because of two unambiguously terrific performances. As Andrew, a rural Massachusetts native with an unsurprisingly troubled past, Christopher Abbott conveys a sense of submerged masculine hostility that’s jarring for anyone who knows him from his moony sweetie-pie performance on Girls. Abbott doesn’t make a point of Andrew’s bitterness, which is universal to the intelligent working-class person who never left his neighborhood, but it’s there, all the same, in his frightening sense of carriage. When Andrew walks into a room it grows just a little less stable; he has a metaphorical storm cloud perpetually buzzing out of sight over his head, and his vocal deliveries are astutely just a teensy bit withdrawn, though Abbott doesn’t make a fetish of withdrawal to risk turning the character into a macho joke.
Co-screenwriter Brady Corbet is less surprising as Ira, the rich kid who quickly spurs Andrew’s resentment, because we’ve seen him in this smug-yuppie-asshole role before. But Corbet invests Ira with self-pleased vocal mannerisms that amusingly clash with the way that Andrew wears his disenfranchisement in his shoulders. Together, Abbott and Corbet manage to establish a rapport with one another that shows their characters to be bound in a hatred that surpasses the love they theoretically feel for the sisters they think they’re fighting for. That’s a potentially profound irony that cuts to the confused heart of American male rivalry, though the fussily symbolic atmosphere of shopworn continental ennui doesn’t quite allow it to flourish.