US / 84 minutes / color / Sacha, Running Man, Breaking Glass Dir & Scr: Lisa Robinson, Annie J. Howell Pr: Lisa Robinson, Annie J. Howell, Jenny Deller Cine: Andreas Burgess Cast: Betsy Brandt, Zev Haworth, Anna Margaret Hollyman, Sakina Jaffrey, Chris Beetem, Brian Evans, Ken Strunk, Marianne Murray, Merri Biechler, David Haugen, Kim Taylor.
Ohio University math professor Claire Hunger (Brandt) lives in Athens, Ohio, with her husband Paul (Beetem), an ornithology professor, and son Connor (Haworth). One morning Paul leaves home by prearrangement to go on a three- or four-day solo survivalist hike in the local wilderness, planning to live off the land. But time passes and, although his abandoned Subaru is soon found and a massive search operation is mounted by Police Chief Ken Doyle (Strunk) and his department, Paul himself is never seen again.
Betsy Brandt as Claire.
Trying to adapt, Claire discovers there were plenty of areas of Paul’s life that he was keeping secret from her. In conjunction with art postgrad Allison Lorn (Hollyman), for example, he had been creating a sculpture; although he and Allison weren’t lovers, it emerges that in many ways she’d grown to know him better than Claire ever had—in other words, even if Paul was not physically unfaithful to Claire with Allison, he was guilty of a deeper infidelity, having developed with her a new intellectual and creative bond that he kept hidden from his wife.
Anna Margaret Hollyman as Allison.
Again in secret from Claire, he occasionally went skydiving. It seems some dizzy spells woke him to the reality of his own mortality, and he was determined to push life to its limits while he still could . . .
From the above you might expect that Claire in Motion is going to be just another domestic thriller along the lines of something by Lynne Moriarty or Gillian Flynn, but Lisa Robinson and Annie J. Howell, who wrote and directed this, are merely luring you with promises of something ephemeral and shiny into a movie that’s very much more interesting.
The mystery of Paul’s disappearance is never resolved, although we eventually learn why his disappearance is essential to the movie; in this lack of the anticipated resolution in favor of a subtler, more satisfying one, Claire in Motion reminded me very strongly of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). There are other ways in which the two movies bear comparison. The atmosphere of Claire in Motion is redolent of that in Weir’s movie, a similarity helped along by the pacing, the intelligent use of the soundtrack, and in particular by Andreas Burgess’s gorgeous cinematography, which has reminders, too, of the observations of nature you find in some of Hayao Miyazaki’s classic animated work.
Sakina Jaffrey as Maya.
So, if Claire in Motion isn’t a psychological thriller and if it isn’t a mystery, what is it?
It plays its cards close enough to its chest that I don’t think any explanation of what the movie is can be anything more than a gambler’s guess, but here’s what I got from it.
Before the disappearance, Claire led a controlled and controlling life with everything—or so she thought—neatly in its place, as might be the terms in a mathematical equation. But when Paul vanishes she has to confront a reality that’s nowhere near as tidy, and one that doesn’t easily submit to her taming instincts. Connor shocks her by proving to have a mind of his own. The bohemian artist Allison, whose life should surely be one of great flakiness alongside that of the rational, hyperintelligent Claire, in fact seems to be far more in command of her existence; her self-possession is in marked contrast to Claire’s diffident uncertainty and she’s always very knowing—to the point of smugness—in Claire’s presence, as if trying to convey to simpleton Claire that she has memories and understandings she’s deliberately not sharing. It’s as if the only way to bring order to chaos is by accepting chaos.
Ken Strunk as Chief Doyle.
Eventually it’s in front of Allison that Claire at last starts breaking from the straitjacket of her previous, complacent existence:
Claire: “You know what? I feel things. I feel plenty.”
This theme of the acceptance of chaos being the way to tame chaos is reflected in the sculpture upon which Allison and Paul were collaborating before he vanished. To these untutored eyes the object looks like something assembled by the sea and washed up on shore—I’d not have been surprised to see a bleached-out plastic carrier bag or a sheet of seaweed tangled in amongst the rest—and that’s obviously how Claire, too, sees it at first. But then she and Connor start adding their own objet trouvée contributions to it, developing its haphazardness in a way that’s clearly very satisfying to them.
Almost as if, come to think of it, the sculpture is a sort of architectural plan for the construction of a life that, looked back upon later, will be seen to have been fulfilling.
Chris Beetem as Paul.
Twice in the movie, conducting her own hopeless search in the wilderness for Paul, Claire comes up against a police barrier ribbon, and both times she obediently turns back. The third time she comes to it, late on in the proceedings, she merely pushes past it as a silly bureaucratic obstacle. And soon she goes skydiving . . .
This isn’t a movie for people with short attention spans. The pacing is deliberate; melodrama is eschewed in the same way that Claire keeps her emotions rigorously in check. I watched it twice on consecutive nights, being if anything even more absorbed by it the second time than I was the first. It’s one of those movies that’s asking for you to solve it, rather than laying any trite solution out in front of you.
The principals are excellent, as is Sakina Jaffrey as Claire’s actress neighbor Maya (watch out for Maya impersonating a YouTube cat). If asked to pick among them, I’d probably plump—unusually for me—for the child actor, Zev Haworth; the last time I was as impressed as this by my initial encounter with a child actor was, I think, when I first saw Lukas Haas in another Peter Weir movie, 1985’s WITNESS.
Zev Haworth as Connor.
As Connor, Haworth conveys supremely youth’s studied affectlessness and its condescension toward bozo, out-of-touch adults; he tolerates his mother despite all her obvious intellectual failings. He’s almost certainly, though, putting on a mask to cover the fact that he’s not as grown up as he’d like Claire to believe—and as she probably does believe.
The mask slips a little when finally he writes a letter to the missing father whom everyone, including Connor, now believes must be dead—either that or deliberately leading a new life in hiding:
Connor: “Dear Dad. I don’t actually know why I’m writing you this letter. Well, my counselor told me to. And it’s a lot easier than talking to mom.”
Claire in Motion was nominated in the Gamechanger Award and Grand Jury Award categories at the 2016 SXSW Film Festival; other award nominations came at the 2017 Fargo Film Festival and the 2016 Seattle International Film Festival. It’s a movie much hated (I’ve just checked) by IMDB users of the kind who think that “Worst movie EVER!!” and “That’s eighty minutes of my life I’ll never get back” constitutes wit.