Bookmark and follow our exclusive coverage of the South by Southwest Film Festival 2016.
The astronomical success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl has impacted culture in a variety of ways, not the least of which is a rise in stories about the two-sidedness that exists even within the closest of relationships. No matter how well we think we know someone, there will always be a part of them that remains elusive and, in some cases, almost completely unrecognizable from the person you married. Claire in Motion is this kind of story, but it’s not trying to be a thriller in the vein of Gone Girl or Karin Slaughter’s novel Pretty Girls, nor a soul-crusher like Zach Clark’s pitch-black comedy White Reindeer. Rather, it’s a quiet and thoughtful meditation on grief and the reality that even the most loving marriages can have distinct disconnects.
The marriage at the center of Annie J. Howell and Lisa Robinson’s film is between Claire Hunger (Breaking Bad‘s Betsy Brandt), a math professor at Ohio University, and Paul (Chris Beetem), an art professor and outdoor enthusiast. When he goes missing one morning, a thorough search unfolds over three weeks, yielding no results and leaving Claire and their son, Connor (Zev Haworth), left in a limbo of not knowing. Is Paul dead? Or did he abandon them? Things only get more confusing once Claire meets Allison (Anna Margaret Hollyman), a grad student who was collaborating on an ambitious project with Paul at the time of his death. That Paul never told her about Allison or this project gnaws at Claire, and her desire to discover the truth behind her Paul’s disappearance is intensified that much more.
Unfortunately, her search isn’t all that compelling. Any sense of mystery or suspense quickly dissipates as the film returns again and again to repetitive and terse exchanges between Claire and Allison, whose revelations aren’t as surprising as they’re probably intended to be. Any hints as to Paul’s whereabouts are either ephemeral or conjectural, and, while true-to-life, this results in a plot that seems to stall every time it starts lurching forward. This frustrating lack of closure is an important aspect of Claire in Motion‘s raison d’être, but it doesn’t bear much cinematic fruit. The movie is, unfortunately, just quite dull.
It doesn’t help that Howell and Robinson shower every frame in an overcast hue that, while complementary to the lush forests and gothic touches of Athens, carries a weight that begins to feel oppressive. The same can be said for Brandt’s performance; though vibrant in other projects, her go-to emotions here are severity and grief. A few supporting characters offer some kind of levity, but their over-the-top tics–a friend, Maya (Sakina Jaffrey), bizarrely rambles on about cat videos for an interminable amount of time–never quite mesh with the established world.
Still, Claire in Motion should leave viewers with plenty to think about. Howell and Robinson amplify their themes in several fascinating ways: Paul, for example, hides behind a thick beard and is shot mostly in shadow, a striking symbol of his unknowability. Contrasting Claire and Paul using the absolutes of math and the ambiguity of art is also a clever choice, and goes far in tracking Claire’s journey towards acceptance. Howell and Robinson are certainly savvy when it comes to tackling big, emotional ideas with a light touch, but that doesn’t always translate to gripping entertainment. Claire in Slow Motion might be a more fitting title.