October 5th: Chasing Sleep (2000)
Recently a friend and I were talking about The Squid and the Whale, and I was saying how great I thought Jeff Daniels’ performance is. I also added that Daniels in person appears a total goof-ball, and nothing like the character he plays in TSatW. Hearing this, my friend said “If you like Jeff Daniels, then you should definitely try to see Chasing Sleep.” I was intrigued, so to the top of my Netflix queue it went.
I was surprised at the many surface similarities between both Chasing Sleep and The Squid and the Whale. While TSatW isn’t a thriller, and Chasing Sleep isn’t funny, there are many points of commonality: in both films Daniels plays a snob professor who sleeps with a student; he separates from a woman who is also a teacher (a college professor in TSatW, a high school teacher in Chasing Sleep); and in both films he despises the man his wife is involved with for being his athletic and outgoing opposite. I must say that while the similarities are many, the two films are quite different. And to Daniels’ credit, the two leads (Bernard Berkman in TSatW and Ed Saxon in Chasing Sleep) are two different people. Daniels plays both as unique characters with unique problems, despite the fact that the characters are similar and that their problems also are similar. It would have been easy for Daniels to play both characters the same way, but he manages to find the nuance in each. Hollywood’s master character actors (sorry Denzel) often settle into specific ready-made grooves, playing the same characters over and over again; its an immense credit to Daniels that he plays two very close characters as separate individuals. Both may be self-righteous slobs who teach English at the college level and suffer marital problems, but they’re different self-righteous slobs.
First time director Michael Walker’s Chasing Sleep begins with a classic noir motif, and moves into some unexpected places from there. Ed Saxon wakes up one morning and his wife is not by his side. He calls in to work and begins to investigate. He calls his wife’s work, he calls her friends, and—when things seems seriously strange—eventually the police. To compound his problems, Saxon suffers from severe insomnia. Time falls out of sync, expanding and contracting wildly. For example: the police call to say they’re coming to the house, Saxon hangs up, the doorbell rings a moment later. The film is full of disorienting moments of lost time. And while the film is short on flashbacks, and the narrative moves in a relatively straight-forward direction, its quite obvious that time is seriously out of joint. Day and night constantly fold in on each other, as if some sinister force is at work, manipulating either Saxon’s mind or reality itself. Except for when the door opens, it is impossible to know if it is day or night. The sickly indoor lighting (noir doesn’t always equal dark) creates a kind of shades-drawn in-between state. In many ways Chasing Sleep refuses to differentiate. For example, Daniels plays every emotional response as if subdued by a dose of sleeping pills, pills which Saxon is indeed taking (a motif throughout the film). The tension of the character is played entirely below the surface; Saxon only half understands what’s going on, but its clear there are things he simply refuses to comprehend.
Daniels’ performance alone would make Chasing Sleep a fine film, but the script, set design and subtle touches make this a compact and powerful neo-noir. I mention the set design; this is of supreme importance, as Ed Saxon doesn’t leave his home for the length of the film. Saxon’s wife is missing, and he dares not leave, his phone and front door his only means of contact. The few auxiliary characters who flit in and out of the film serve only as human MacGuffins, who exist in the film only to move the plot forward. And—spoilers, watch out!—by the film’s conclusion there is some doubt as to the very reality of these characters. Several tired police officers appear and disappear, dropping pills and cryptic remarks that only increase Saxon’s paranoia. An adoring student (Sadie, played by Emily Bergl) brings Saxon soup and then propositions sex; Gym teacher George (Julian McMahon), the man his wife is sleeping with, punches Saxon in the face. All of these characters exist on the periphery, acting as triggers and nothing more.
The film’s true secrets are not held by the supporting cast, but by the house where Saxon lives. While all the action takes place in a few rooms, Chasing Sleep never feels like theatre. The attention to detail is uniquely filmic: the camera examines every inch of dirt, grime and decay, paying particular attention to the water damage found in the bathroom. Saxon will be left to his own devices for minutes as the film’s focus shifts to the crumbing details of the old house. This is the kind of decay an old house miraculously attains when no one lives there. The score is more like sound design than traditional soundtrack: drones and high-pitched frequencies, resembling the ambient sounds of the night and the electronic hum home-owners only notice in the dead of night.
While an unsettling psychological examination throughout, Chasing Sleep only becomes qualified horror in the last act, when the house’s (and Saxon’s) secrets are revealed. One particular scene is so disturbing and visually disarming that it frames the rest of the film in a new and unexpected manner. Questions are answered, but instead of satisfaction, the feeling is resignation. The anti-climactic resolution answers many questions, but leaves the audience cold. The largest question, “Is this all real?” is never answered; interpretation is up to the viewer; a certain indifference is present in this ultimately pessimistic film.
Chasing Sleep is already an obscurity. Much like The Minus Man, this is a film of quiet and arresting power, one which requires patience but rewards it, and warrants repeat viewings to fully appreciate its many angles. Doing more with less has always been a hallmark of noir; the emotionally restrained yet psychologically complex nature of Chasing Sleep places it among the greats of the genre.