Off the Shelf…Jaume Balagueró’s ‘Sleep Tight’

From Jaume Balagueró, director of [REC] and [REC] 2, comes one of the best and most suspenseful films I’ve seen in at least a decade. It’s a taut, complex and magnificently dark thriller that doesn’t let up until the credits roll. Sleep Tight (or Mientras Duermes) follows a tortured soul named Caesar (Luis Tosar) who by some weird personal quirk is unable to be happy. Nothing will brighten his sour mood…except seeing others more upset, displeased or depressed than him. Yet before you think this sounds like some hokey story or an odd iteration of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, this really is something special. The visuals are wonderfully intricate for such simple surroundings and the cast is terrific and the streamlined approach to Balagueró’s film effortless creates tension in every frame. Also as atmosphere goes along way in enhancing the story, when watching this enigmatic nail-biter, believe me, the darker the environment and the later in the evening you can see this the better.

Without giving too much away Caesar tries, with every breath he takes, to make people feel bad as he does; that’s how he gets his kicks. The despair he faces on a regular basis is actually affecting him enough that he is and has been on the edge of suicide. To keep him from the edge, literally, he subtly taunts, demeans and otherwise insults the tenants of the building in which he is the caretaker/super. The irony of his role is that as the front desk clerk he’s supposed to be the shining face of this fancy, stylistic and Middle Earth looking apartment complex (trust me, it’ll make more sense when you see it) and yet he’s the last person you’d want greeting you at the elevator landing or worse, with access to your apartment. So he messes with the residents to make himself feel superior and like a comic book character he’s finally met his arch nemesis, a girl named Clara (Marta Etura) who despite his tampering just exudes perpetual optimism and happiness.

He’s locked in on her and her alone and like clockwork sets out to torment Clara relentlessly. Now what makes Caesar so repugnant are the lengths he goes to in order to deflate Clara’s happiness. Not words mind you, although there is one scene that like the recipient of his slight but unbridled coarseness shatters that old saying “sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me” as he similarly shatters the woman’s spirit and livelihood in one monologue, but offences and acts that would likely lead to hundreds of years of jail time were he prosecuted. He’s got this cold surgical precision to the way he exacts his plan and it only intensifies, becoming more irksome and off-putting with each succeeding day.

Sleep Tight is wonderfully layered as it reveals a complex and confusing narrative out of a seemingly small scale story. For every question answered, like a hydra, two more questions are prompted. It’s a captivating character study about Caesar. Further it’s made all the more compelling because even though he is the villain he’s got this every man demeanor that unassumingly sucks you in and causes, despite his vile actions, empathy. There are several times when he is almost discovered and caught but for some very strange reason you are rooting for him to escape justice. Sure it defies morality when you cheer for a bad guy but without knowing really why he’s so dead-set on Clara the mind races for answers that aren’t spoon-fed to us. The idea that “I can’t be happy” seems flaky and superficial but it makes us wonder is there more to it. Why does he keep telling his bed-ridden mother of his plans? Did her family do something to Caesar? Or does he, like that great line in The Dark Knight, just want to watch the world burn?

It’s because of this confusing exposition that you pull for him to overcome his sadistic boss and being caught on several occasions. One of the best sequences in the film is this hallway scene that is such a great scene and has so much tension that you won’t even realize you’re holding your breath. Films that have a stalker, or deranged antagonist usually lose their hook or intriguing premise halfway through because either the story is lacking or they resort to jump scares or both. Further, in the hands of a less skilled filmmaker the story would have come across like a short film premise that was unsuccessfully stretched out to feature length runtime. Not the case here as Balagueró, evidenced by his masterful direction in the first two [REC] films, builds tension and keeps it high throughout the runtime. It’s a bare bones film and just solid storytelling all wrapped up in the reserved but focused narrative.

As if the film wasn’t thrilling and satisfying enough this Blu Ray comes with one impressively thorough making-of. It covers a wide range if topics from all the people involved but for a no nonsense film that’s been stripped down to the essentials it’s surprising there’s so much to take in and learn, not just about this story but also about filmmaking. Watching the making-of (which is longer than this 90 minute pensive thrill ride) we see a Lost Highway poster on the wall in one of the rooms that Balagueró inhabited while editing the film. It’s fitting because his film has touches of David Lynch all over it. Further this is like the perfect hybrid of a David Lynch and David Fincher film.

G-S-T RULING:

Few films succeed in keeping my attention until 4 am (that’s the life of a cineblogger for ya!) but this deceptively complex and twisted film is well-paced, engaging and simply unpredictable. In fact it reminds me of the first tine I saw The Usual Suspects. Sleep Tight is an equally magnetic film that is powered by stellar acting from Luis Tosar and Marta Etura and fires on all cylinders under the careful direction of Balagueró. Do yourself a favor and sit down to this fantastic first rate thriller and allow yourself to be blindsided by this absolute genre treasure…I promise you won’t be sorry.