Identification of a Woman: Dosunmu’s Exacting Arthouse Drama of Suffocation and Alienation
Nigerian born director Andrew Dosunmu branches out with an unexpectedly somber portrait of Brooklyn for his funereal third feature, Where is Kyra? (previously known as Beat-Up Little Seagull when the project was in production). Reuniting with Darci Picoult, the scribe of his underrated 2013 sophomore film Mother of George, the title also marks the onscreen return of actress Michelle Pfeiffer following a four year hiatus (last seen in Luc Besson’s The Family) who stars as a woman struggling to put her life back together despite some considerable economical and personal setbacks.
Single and living alone with her ailing mother Ruth (Suzanne Shepherd), the quiet and somewhat disconsolate Kyra (Pfeiffer) has been attempting in vain to find employment throughout various offices and restaurants in Brooklyn. When Ruth suddenly dies, Kyra is unable to stave off her mounting debt, and resorts to finding a creative solution by cashing her mother’s pension checks. A chance encounter with the lonely and divorced Doug (Kiefer Sutherland) allows Kyra a sympathetic outlet, but her inability to be honest with him greatly complicates their developing attraction to one another. Eventually, Kyra’s significant problems spiral out of control.
Urban decay and industrial alienation never looked as intoxicatingly beautiful as it does here, courtesy of Dosunmu’s reunion with DP Bradford Young (the title premieres the same week Young received a well-deserved Oscar nod for his work on Villeneuve’s Arrival). There are several tightly framed close-ups on Pfeiffer, as arrestingly beautiful as ever, although any real illuminating sequences are few and far between. This is a down-and-out portrait of Brooklyn, the brown-ish gray facades mirrored by equally gloomy, overcast skies. The screeching sound of metal as trains fly by on ceaselessly pelted tracks squeal with irksome plaintiveness on the soundtrack, which also consists of a jarring, discordant cacophony of mixed industrial noises from Philip Miller’s score, usually used to underline sequences where Kyra dons a particularly troubling masquerade. In fact, you only really get to see the faces of Pfeiffer and Sutherland in plain sight at the same time only once, by the mellow yellow light of a bedroom lamp during a moment when these downtrodden creatures of the dark are forced to surface into the grim, bitter reality of Kyra’s looming predicament.
The audience is as purposefully alienated from Kyra as she is from herself. So besotted by issues, she cannot even properly mourn for her mother (a brief but aching performance from character actress Suzanne Shepherd, perhaps best known as Big Ethel in John Water’s last film, A Dirty Shame, 2003) or even navigate the murky circumstances which robbed her of a future. Day drinking at the bar, which is where she meets Sutherland’s lonely caretaker, suggests issues with drug and alcohol addiction, in turn explaining why she roams the neon-lit hovels of Brooklyn for minimum wage positions—occupations which only add to the hopelessness of her debt.
Stylistically, this is the sort of visualization of alienation and the dissolution of identity one would attribute to the major works of Antonioni, and Pfeiffer’s Kyra plays like a relation to the Monica Vitti character of Red Desert (1964). Young’s impressive frames (he has twice won the cinematography award at Sundance, previously for his work on Mother of George, which was a tie with his own work on David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) also recalls the same sort of visualization of invisibility as seen in Oren Moverman’s Time Out of Mind (2014), a portrait of a homeless man, never quite a visible fixture in his own landscape.
Pfeiffer and Sutherland approach their roles realistically and with impressive subtlety. There’s no showboating to be found in Where is Kyra?, about two lonely people treading water furiously but close to drowning. The economic woes of Kyra additionally provide the film with elements of noir—we ask, not only where is Kyra, but how long has she been gone? It seems she’s been swinging from lifeline to lifeline well before we even meet her in the opening frames as she forlornly prepares a bath for her decrepit mother.
If one gets a sense of being consumed by the film’s crushing tone and impeccable sense of ambience, Dosunmu and Picoult deliver a dynamite third act climax. A resting shot on Pfeiffer’s face (a bookend reflection of an earlier shot in a mirror, with different lighting and a different expression) is profoundly moving, and is concomitantly comparable to a similar use of the performer’s face in Stephen Frears’ 2009 Cheri, a close-up of a woman simultaneously existing (and perhaps with relief) fading.
Reviewed on January 24th at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival – Premieres Program. 98 Min.