SXSW Film Review – Claire in Motion
Claire in Motion
A woman sleeps in bed. Her husband turns over and kisses her good morning. She continues to sleep, he gets up and gets dressed. The husband goes out for a hiking trip. He parks his car, puts on his backpack, and walks into the woods. He never returns. So starts Annie J. Howell and Lisa Robinson’s Claire in Motion (2016). What starts out as a mystery soon develops into an engrossing study of a character dealing with loss, and the quick realization that everything they thought was true may be the complete opposite. This is an engaging drama that takes a turn we might not be expecting, but what we get is equally as good.
The woman is played by Betsy Brandt, known to me from her work as Marie in Breaking Bad. As the title character here, Brandt has the opportunity to stretch her dramatic wings. Claire is a math professor at a local college, whose life is determined through logic and reason. When her husband Paul (Chris Beetem) suddenly vanishes without a trace, her life is put to the test in the absence of reason. Sometimes life doesn’t make sense, things happen and people make choices that defy rationality. When her husband goes missing, Claire initially tackles the problem like a math equation, trying to put the pieces together even when she barely has anything to go by.
Brandt’s performance is excellent. There’s the temptation to go over the top with this material, to exaggerate the mounting dread as time goes by. But Brandt avoids that trap and internalizes Claire’s emotions. Howell and Robinson (who share writing and directing credits) show Claire’s feelings through expression more so than dialogue. Much of what we get from her is through the subtle gestures of her face, the strain and heartbreak seeping through the surface. When she watches old videos of her husband on her tablet, her reaction is quiet, reserved. It’s as though the shock of what happened has left her grasping for any kind of feeling. As weeks go by and authorities begin to close their investigation, the hurt inside of Claire only deepens. She’s left to care for her son Connor (Zev Haworth), who is also going through his own personal struggle after losing his father.
The title is appropriate for this story. At first, we suspect that we’re in a noir-styled mystery, as the search for Claire’s husband gets underway. We soon discover that Howell and Robinson have other themes in mind. The story is much more about Claire’s efforts to continue forward even after this traumatic event happens. Andreas Burgess’ cinematography pictures Claire in constant movement. We often see the camera moving beside her as she walks from left to right (a cinematic indicator of a character “moving forward”). Other scenes place the camera directly behind her as she walks through a forest path, or follows as she drives along a stretch of highway. She is constantly seen walking along pathways, or hiking up the very trail her husband took when he disappeared. The symbolism is pretty obvious here, Howell and Robinson are giving us a character subtly learning to regain themselves and move on with life. The craftsmanship is exceptional in articulating this idea.
A less convincing element is the character Allison (Anna Margaret Hollyman). During her own investigation into Paul’s disappearance, Claire learns of his relationship with grad student Allison. Paul was an art professor, and as the plot unfolds suspicion starts to arise regarding the manner of his working association with this woman. Allison feels less believable than any other character. Her art projects have an air of hipster pretentiousness, where everything is about “freeing yourself, man” and not being constrained by what society deems as “normal.” The piece Allison and Paul were working on before he left looks like a bunch of twigs bunched together by random wire and tattered clothing. But hey, I’m not an art student, so what do I know? Allison is included into the plot as a source of added tension to Claire, which is unneeded. The story works best when Claire’s struggle happens inside of herself. Placing a potentially adulterous affair into the mix only externalizes the turmoil.
What impressed me about Claire in Motion is how it takes its time. This is not a thriller; anyone who goes in expecting this will come away disappointed. Howell and Robinson search for something deeper with their story, using the missing husband as a means to another end. I’m reminded of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), in which a missing woman sparks off an entirely different set of circumstances for the other characters. This film doesn’t reach the same heights that Antonioni’s does, but I do get the same kind of mood. The fact that I’m even comparing the two should be a testament to how good this is.