The wind-up is nifty but the delivery is off target in “Chasing Sleep,” a claustrophobic thriller that intrigues but simply doesn’t thrill. Clearly inspired by Roman Polanski’s classic low-budget psychological shocker “Repulsion,” this indie production manages to sustain interest for an hour in the housebound tale of a man whose wife has disappeared, and Jeff Daniels does a more than creditable job portraying the fellow’s crack-up. But debuting filmmaker Michael Walker shows more chops as a director than as a writer, and the lack of exciting story twists or visceral kicks in the climactic stretch will mitigate against anything more than modest theatrical prospects; cable and video future looks brighter.
Disturbed when his wife doesn’t return from work one night, college prof Ed Saxon (Daniels) calls the cops, who shortly find her car. As Ed sits in his house waiting for news, all the while popping more pills to combat insomnia and confronting weird plumbing problems that keep the pipes rattling and groaning in ominous ways, he welcomes in an intensely admiring student (Emily Bergl), who hurts her nose in the bathroom and leaves a blood-soaked sweater behind. He also trades hostile accusations with a neighbor, George (Julian McMahon), who has been having an affair with Ed’s wife.
Walker’s approach depends upon the gradual revelation of telling details — the discovery of the wife’s diary, her likely pregnancy and an errant finger that refuses to be flushed down the toilet — along with the presentation of mounting evidence that Ed may be hallucinating the whole thing. The escalating plumbing disruptions provide a perfectly suitable symbolic expression of the state of Ed’s conscience, and Walker employs such narratively helpful devices as narrowly focusing viewer attention on pertinent minutiae and purposely subverting a sense of time to evoke Ed’s increasing disorientation.
Unfortunately, pic flattens out with more than a half-hour to go and coasts to its destination rather than riding on a rush of accumulated momentum.
Although the viewer is meant to grow progressively suspicious of the protag’s mental stability, sincerity and innocence, Daniels, who is center screen throughout, delivers a carefully calibrated performance that encourages one not to make up one’s mind about the character until the final act. Supporting perfs are nicely slightly off-center, notably those of Gil Bellows as the lead detective and Zach Grenier as a seemingly mild-mannered shrink.
Shot in Michigan, pic has been evocatively but not melodramatically shot by Jim Denault, almost entirely in the house. Other tech contributions are solid on a budget.