Screens at CIFF: 10/13 & 10/16
Winner of the Silver Hugo in the After Dark Competition
World premiere: 23 September, 2011, Fantastic Fest

The newest film by director Jaume Balagueró, Sleep Tight, starts out with a grandiose gesture desiring, in the gravest way, to make us feel incredibly sorry for his protagonist, César (Luis Tosar), a bald sad-sack of middle-aged longing. To wit, we see the bleary-eyed soul contemplating suicide, mulling over how badly he's gone off the rails in his life, convinced that he congenitally lacks the ability to feel any kind of happiness, and that his job as doorman at a decent but by no means flashy apartment building has condemned him to a lifetime of further solitude and lack of consideration by the people who go by every day and pretend to be interested in his well-being, because it costs nothing to be pleasant to the doorman. We are not made to identify with the claustrophobic depression he feels, but it's certainly next to impossible not to feel really darn sorry for him, and to want him to find some kind of way out of this emotional trap he's become stuck in.

Balagueró's direction, Alberto Marini's sensitive writing, and Tosar's constant look of wounded shock all work together to make César seem like quite a pathetic figure, and this is key to everything that follows; that we start Sleep Tight by feeling really sorry for him and wanting him to be happy. For as it turns out, the film is playing a trick on the audience, because once we've firmly ended up on his side, the movie reveals, with exceptional swiftness, that this wistful schlub is, actually, a complete monster. Which complicates our relationship to him and the rest of the movie rather considerably, of course, because we've basically been duped into rooting for a man who, before the movie wraps up, will have committed murder, threatened a child with her death and the death of her family, and engaged in the systematic serial rape of Clara (Marta Etura), a woman whom he stalks and drugs most nights, having persuaded himself that the slightly greater kindness she shows him than the other tenants do is proof that she loves him - of for that matter, that showing him kindness is the worst kind of crime against his carefully-nurtured identity as a sad man of no worth, and that's why he takes out the sickest of his depredations on here. You never can tell with psychos. Not even the ones we get to know with the distressing intimacy that we get to know César.

For it is, ultimately, that intimacy driving the whole movie: the film is ultimately less about what happens to him than about what it reveals to us, the people who know him better than any of the characters he interacts with; it is a character study first and a story only distantly second (in fact, as a narrative, the film trickles off precipitously with a final scene that is no less forced and inauthentic for being predictable from a good way off). And boy, do Balagueró and Marini do a good of limiting our POV solely to César's, forcing us to identify with him even when that puts us in some unbelievably uncomfortable places - there is a fantastic sequence that finds him trying to sneak out of Clara's apartment, having fallen asleep under her bed by accident, and quite a fantastic bit of suspense it is, too, edited and shot with a merciless precision that is the best sort of nerve-wracking, right up until the instant that we realise that we're rooting for a rapist to escape detection.

Partially, this is because the film does such a job of insinuating César into our confidence; we start out only seeing himself as he does, but from the outside, so that all of the little things that we'll later realise are signs of his madness - keeping a journal of when people leave the building, so he has an exact model of every tenant's behavior, for example - just seem like eccentricities, and we've already started investing in him emotionally by the time those eccentricities turn dark. Partially, too, it's because of Tosar's really inexplicable charisma, always seeming like a grounded, reasonable person even at his most deranged, for the basic and essential reason that Tosar isn't playing the character as a crazy rapist-killer; César doesn't perceive a single thing wrong with his behavior, so why should he act like he's evil?

Predominately, though, it's because of Balagueró's merciless limitation of what we can see, hear, or know outside of César's perception of events: the film is visually cramped and if more than a dozen shots aren't ultimately favoring his perspective or anchoring the frame with his body, I'd be surprised. We should not be shocked that a man whose most prominent film outside of Spain is the terrific found-footage movie [REC] (which, in fairness, he only co-directed) would be good at manipulating the perspective from which we see the film's action, and while there are virtually no points of aesthetic similarity between the first-person [REC] and the unnervingly intimate but perpetually and deliberately third-person Sleep Tight (for while we observe quite a lot about César, we never get "inside" his head, and this is probably for the best), the way that we are strictly limited to a certain view of events certainly works in much the same way between the two movies.

My single reservation with the film, for it is quite well-made and well-acted, is that it's ultimately not very content-heavy: there's no purpose to its depiction of madness other than "this is a madman", and unlike other movies which do the same - Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer gallops to mind - it's not sufficiently distressing to work as genuine horror. It's a rock-solid uncomfortable thriller, though, and as it does not appear to be seeking to become a genre classic, I guess it's not a terrible sin that it doesn't attain that level.