Though it drifts off into the ozone at the end, for most of its running time, “Never Here” is a low-key but effective psychological thriller which flirts with that looming issue of the social-media age: privacy, and the invasion thereof. But that theme is only a semi-developed starting point for a narrative that starts like a muted version of “The Eyes of Laura Mars” (i.e. an artist is seemingly stalked by a non-fan of her transgressive work) before gradually turning into a muted “Repulsion,” in which one suspects the real “perp” is the protagonist’s disintegrating sanity.
Starring Mireille Enos in an impressive lead turn, and notable for providing the late Sam Shepard a substantial final role, this first narrative feature for editor and Brit stage thesp turned writer-director Camille Thoman is accomplished enough to suggest it won’t be her last. However, the careful, confident handling doesn’t entirely make up for the fact that this intriguing puzzle ultimately leaves too many pieces missing.
We meet 40-ish successful performance and conceptual artist Miranda Hall (Enos) as she’s being interviewed by a journalist on the day of her new show. Though friendly and open, what she says immediately makes us wonder whether to like, let alone trust her: Her latest “project” evolved from finding a stranger’s cellphone on the street. Rather than returning it, she mined it for all information (save his web history and emails), using GPS records to visit/photograph places he’s been, going behind his back to get intel from friends and family.
The latter seemed to think he’d “love” being the surprise subject of a gallery exhibit. But when finally contacted, Arthur Anderton (veteran playwright David Greenspan) “didn’t love it,” Miranda tersely notes. Well, no wonder: Though she seems oblivious to anything but her own mission, the artiste’s use of “chance” and strangers to form her work could easily be considered a pretentious but still violative form of identity theft.
At the gallery opening that night, the man himself turns up, gloweringly takes it all in, and tells Miranda only, “You’ve done a bad thing,” before walking out — albeit not before telling her dealer and sometime lover Paul Stark (Shepard) he plans to sue. Paul is unconcerned; it’s more publicity that will presumably heighten his client’s profile. But during their assignation later that night (they have an “arrangement” that satisfies mutual sexual needs without encroaching on Paul’s emotional devotion to a seriously ill wife), he witnesses an assault just outside her apartment. As he doesn’t want to “get involved,” she subsequently pretends to have been the witness herself when filing a report. The policeman who arrives to take her account turns out to be Andy (Vincent Piazza), Miranda’s onetime college beau.
Their old flame sparks again, which is a good thing. Less good is a swift escalation of disturbing events. First, the exhibit is vandalized. Assuming this is the aggrieved Mr. Anderton’s revenge, she orders it kept that way, to further reflect her subject’s “truth.” People in Miranda’s orbit suffer harm or suspiciously vanish; one day her dog acts traumatized, amidst repeated signs of disturbance in her apartment. More, her perception of reality seems to separate from what others observe. An obsessive new “project,” documenting her own stalking of a “Mr. S.” who might be stalking her, doesn’t help. Have her art’s ethical problems attracted a psychopath? Or is she simply snapping tether, losing all sense of self in voyeuristic pursuit of others’ identities?
Best known for TV dramas “The Killing” and “The Catch,” Eno handles her role’s layers of ambiguity with intelligent aplomb. The same cannot be said for Thoman’s script, which intrigues for a long time but ultimately goes blurry with too many under-explained characters and events—not to mention a fadeout that feels more like a narrative shrug than either a genuine resolution or a haunting note of mystery.
It mightn’t feel so unsatisfying if for so long the film didn’t present itself as a fairly conventional (if minor-key) thriller, then failed to rev up enough insight or drama when transitioning to interior-psychological terrain. Few things are more compelling than a strong screen representation of a slow slide toward madness. But neither in her writing nor directorial style does Thoman dig in deep enough to make the tactical shift feel sufficiently organic or vivid. That leaves “Never Here” caught a bit awkwardly between genre suspense and something more artily abstract.
Nonetheless, her restraint is elegant and absorbing for a time. Shot in New York City (though any sense of specific locale is avoided), the leisurely but never-dull film has a handsome, increasingly somber look, and other assembly aspects are thoughtfully carried out. Thoman demonstrates a sure hand with a good cast, even if no support players get a fully defined part to play beyond Shepard. He brings his customary mix of gravity and wryness to a decent if unremarkable sendoff appearance.