Sarah (Anne Parillaud) is a mess. It has been a year since the death of her teenage son, who, after they had argued, fell from a second-story window and was impaled by exposed rebar. She’s now a nurse at a hospital, and she intentionally works overtime to prevent herself from going home. The trouble is, the long hours she’s putting in are starting to take their toll; a patient in her care, we’re told but not shown, was overmedicated. She’s ordered to go home, get some rest, and not come back until the following Monday. As she’s driving home, she accidentally runs into a young man, who quite suddenly emerged from the woods and staggered into the middle of the road. We already know her cell phone isn’t in her purse, for directors Caroline and Éric du Potet made it a point to reveal it sitting in her locker at the hospital. Unable to call for help, Sarah decides to take the man home and care for him herself.
Miraculously, he’s not seriously hurt. He is, however, desperate for Sarah to get in the car and drive; a pair of headlights appear in the horizon, and they’re approaching very fast. Someone is following this young man. Rather than continue tailgating Sarah, the pursuing vehicle changes lanes and speeds ahead, but not before the driver shines a light on the faces of Sarah and her passenger. Frazzled but alive, Sarah successfully makes it home. So too does the unknown driver (Thierry Frémont), who has a crowbar in his hand, blood on his face, and murder in his eyes. He breaks into the house, knocks Sarah unconscious, and begins his hunt for the young man, whose name is Arthur (Arthur Dupont).
I’ve just described the first quarter of In Their Sleep, the only portion that doesn’t require the issuing of a spoiler warning. It’s also the only portion that’s interesting and trustworthy. The film is a rapid-fire thriller that disappointed me twice, first because no real effort was made to surprise me, second because it made too much of an effort to throw me off track. It’s disappointing to know where a plot is heading early on; it’s downright frustrating to be needlessly confused at the last minute. In a bad way, I left the theater unsure of what had happened and what exactly I was supposed to believe. I guess I can give it credit for building tension and consistently establishing mood, but even then I’m forced to admit that many, many other movies have done the same thing, sometimes to greater success.
American audiences are conditioned to expect plot twists no earlier than the third act. In Their Sleep, filmed and originally released in France, reveals its secret before the second half begins. It’s painfully predictable, but because I was still invested in Sarah at that point, I had hope. The implication is that she’s motivated out of guilt, since her son’s death was needless and preventable. Arthur not only looks about the same age, but also appears to her injured and vulnerable. He’s essentially a boy, and she’s protecting him as a mother would protect her child. After the middle section, at which point crucial details are revealed, I wondered if I was supposed to view Sarah in a different light; perhaps we’re being told that, while guilt can inspire compassion, it can also blind us to the truth.
Perhaps we’re being told that. But then again, perhaps we’re not. Not only does Sarah eventually become just another faceless victim in a thriller, the memory of her son is also altogether dropped from the plot. That leaves me with very little reason to continue investing in her. If this movie isn’t the cautionary tale of a grieving mother, then what exactly is it? Arthur’s story? If this is the case, there hasn’t been a bait-and-switch film this audacious and unexpected since Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. No, I didn’t just pay this film a compliment. Psycho is a study in people who aren’t what they seem; In Their Sleep is a crash course in spotting the mechanics of a simple and formulaic plot.
The final nail in the coffin is the film’s ending, which is structured in no logical or comprehensible way. Without getting into specifics, let’s just say that we’re shown a specific sequence of events; when it finishes, the film inexplicably backtracks and shows us a completely different sequence of events. From this, I can only speculate that the first ending was a vision, or a dream, or a hallucination. Fine, but what was the purpose of including it? At no point does it seem like a stylistic narrative approach. Rather, it seems like an unfortunate editing mishap. Watching the final ten minutes, my thoughts turned to home video release of Clue, which included all three theatrical endings and had them clearly marked with title cards: “That’s how it could have happened. But how about this?” If In Their Sleep had considered the same tactic, we might not be having this conversation right now.