There’s an awful lot of ravishing beauty on display in “Where Is Kyra?,” Nigerian-born filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu’s startling new visual ode to life on the New York fringes, and it’s safe to say the characters on screen see none of it. Through the lens of ingenious cinematographer Bradford Young, dingy apartment corridors turn to blazing crimson purgatories, drab Goodwill ensembles turn to iridescent haute couture, and the extraordinary face of Michelle Pfeiffer remains, well, that same extraordinary face — though one senses that Kyra, the near-destitute divorcee she plays to scarring effect in this downward-spiraling economic tragedy, long ago stopped seeing anything in the mirror.
Every bit as formally exciting as Dosunmu’s previous film, 2013’s glorious Yoruba-focused drama “Mother of George,” “Where Is Kyra?” proves a cooler, less emotionally rewarding experience, with Darci Picoult’s ultra-lean script giving Pfeiffer’s fearless performance fewer notes to play as it goes along. Commercial interest in “Kyra” will be sparse as a result: Though the casting of Pfeiffer and Kiefer Sutherland hinted at a crossover project for Dosunmu, this is daring, even radical work that asserts its maker’s singularity first and foremost. For Pfeiffer, meanwhile, one hopes this will prove a gateway into the kind of independent cinema where her crisp, canny gifts as an actor are both wanted and needed. After a four-year absence from screens, preceded by such wasteful commercial projects as “The Family,” it’s a positive joy to see her playing a living, breathing, bruised human being — even if “joy” is not a word likely to be re-used in any description of this sad, shattered character study.
Dosunmu and Picoult take their time in revealing the exact circumstances of Kyra’s misfortune, though Young’s shadow-wrapped images plunge us immediately into her forlorn headspace. In a masterfully constructed shot near the outset, viewed through not one but two doors left ajar, Kyra and her ailing mother Ruth (Suzanne Shepherd) are viewed pensively alone in neighboring rooms, before Kyra joins Ruth to assist with bathtime — an aching tableau of tender weariness, all caught in a mere sliver of the frame. Dosunmu and Young make us wait for a closeup, and viewers might feel they’re squinting to see Kyra clearly in the permanent gloaming of her mother’s tired Brooklyn apartment.
That’s no accident in a portrait of a woman at whom nobody cares to truly look. Not the few, shuffling guests at the funeral after Ruth quietly passes. Not the bosses at the grim, cheap offices and diners she trudges through for failed job interview after failed job interview. And in what becomes a narratively crucial point, certainly not the tellers at the bank where she cashes Ruth’s disability checks. Even in close-up she threatens to vanish, as whole planes of Pfeiffer’s face are masked by Young’s velvety shadows: Without a word of rhetoric from the script, Dosunmu pointedly illustrates how society renders single women above a certain age invisible. In a recurring image, introduced in the opening shot and contextualized as the narrative progresses, a stooped, elderly-looking woman struggles along the sidewalk, her face obscured — a bleak symbol of sorts for society’s disenfranchised, here granted the admittedly dim spotlight.
Slowly the specifics of Kyra’s desperation trickle out, though it’s nothing you couldn’t guess at: the recent collapse of a longstanding marriage in Virginia, being made redundant from her job there, moving back home. It’s sob story to which only scuzzy, tattooed slacker Doug (Sutherland), whose life is perhaps one iota more assembled than Kyra’s, lends a listening ear; to her surprise, a casual romance develops between them, but it’s clear that this is not a world of happily-ever-afters. (Or happily-ever-befores, for that matter.)
The sheer monotony of Kyra’s despair is appropriately oppressive — if she doesn’t get a break from her life, neither should the audience — though it does make Dosunmu’s film an increasingly tough, alienating sit. (Philip Miller’s metallic, sometimes screechingly abrasive score, while in tune with our protagonist’s inner agony, doesn’t make it any easier.) The emotional range of Pfeiffer’s riveting performance isn’t a broad one, though this frequently nonverbal film is entirely reliant on her cutting powers of expression as she progresses from harrowed to exhausted and back, at risk of disappearing into herself entirely.
It’s ostensibly a generous showcase for the actress, and certainly her strongest screen role since 2002’s “White Oleander.” But Pfeiffer rather selflessly applies herself as a component in Dosunmu’s intoxicating mise-en-scène, blending into and assuming the mood of its exacting compositions. Young has been practicing and expanding his signature aesthetic of intimate underlighting in ever larger projects — recently nabbing a deserved Oscar nomination for his work on Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival.” “Where Is Kyra?” returns him to his small-scale roots in a seductive, quasi-experimental manner, playing liberally with saturated color, extreme depth of field and the manifold textures of darkness. As a painter of light on human skin, he may be without current equal in American cinema: A key sustained shot of Pfeiffer’s face in unhappy repose, as dancing emergency-services lights change its angles and accents, is this challenging film’s most brilliant example of thespian and filmic technique in perfect symbiosis.