'Never Here': Film Review | Oldenburg 2017

Courtesy of Wunderbar Productions
An elusive, allusive, classy psycho-thriller debut.

Camille Thoman's feature debut is a haunting Lynchian mystery featuring the late Sam Shepard in his final big-screen role.

Performance artist, documentarian and editor Camille Thoman has assembled an impressive range of talents for her narrative feature debut, an atmospheric indie psycho-thriller with shades of Lynch and Hitchcock. The Killing star Mireille Enos plays the lead, Sam Shepard makes his final screen appearance and Zachary Quinto has a credit as exec producer. Vexing, disquieting, willfully opaque in places, Never Here had its European premiere at Oldenburg International Film Festival last week. Vertical Entertainment is planning a limited U.S. release Oct. 20, with a pay TV launch to follow on Starz in early 2018.

Enos stars as Miranda Fall, a New York-based conceptual artist whose latest gallery show uses images and locations purloined from a lost cellphone. This invasion of privacy outrages the phone's original owner, Arthur Anderton (David Greenspan), who ominously warns Miranda "you did a bad thing" at the launch party. Later that night, back at her apartment, Miranda's art dealer and secret lover Paul Stark (Shepard) witnesses a stranger assaulting a woman in the street outside. Covering for Paul, who is married with a sick wife, Miranda tells the police that she saw the attack alone, sketching a likeness of the suspect based on Paul's description.

The case falls to detective Andy Williams (Vincent Piazza), who just happens to be one of Miranda's old flames. Although the sexual chemistry between them still sizzles, Andy becomes increasingly suspicious of Miranda's account of the assault. In a further fateful coincidence, it transpires that Miranda also knew the victim and possibly the attacker too. She becomes obsessed with one of the nameless suspects (Goran Visnjic) after picking him from a police identity parade, tracking down his address and creeping around his empty apartment, risking her safety on the spurious alibi of preparing a new art project. Meanwhile, an elusive mystery man appears to be shadowing Miranda's every move in return. Or is she losing her grasp on reality and stalking herself? 

Never Here wears the outer clothes of a crime thriller to cloak a more haunting, disturbing, open-ended rumination on voyeurism and identity. Thoman cites Paul Auster's textually tricksy New York trilogy and the Alfred Hitchcock classic mystery The Lady Vanishes as influences, even including a short clip from the latter and naming one of her minor characters after its star, Margaret Lockwood. But Thoman's film is more than a cerebral exercise in homage. It also works on the visceral level of a nightmarish mood piece, mostly unfolding in underlit interiors that clearly invoke the shadowy occult realm of Lynch more than Hitchcock.

Thoman's playfully arty touches include highlighting details with red circles on screen, and deploying Jenny Holzer-style neon slogan artworks as visual clues. She repeatedly implicates the viewer as voyeur with mobile camerawork that prowls and jerks and hovers uncomfortably close to characters, mimicking the stop-start motions of a stalker. Visual focus is deliberately blurry in places, amplifying the theme of identity melting and dissolving. James Lavino's score is a patchwork of sonic unease, sprinkled with non-diegetic drones and crackles, another Lynchian touch. Thoman also loops and layers snippets of dialogue, using them almost like musical motifs.

Ending without firm narrative closure, Never Here is possibly too subtle for its own good, refusing to spoon-feed audience expectations with neat explanations and satisfying shock  twists. Its self-consciously cryptic style will alienate some viewers, and arguably becomes overly mannered in places, veering more toward art installation than movie. It is sometimes unclear whether Thoman's narrative knots and muted emotional shadings are the result of smart novelistic game-playing or simple inexperience.

Even so, Never Here manages to remain engrossing throughout despite minimal violence and none of the sexualized female victimhood that drives most stalker thrillers, an admirable subversion of genre tropes. Enos gives a finely calibrated performance as Miranda, an apparent mystery to herself, her deadpan surface confidence masking submerged psychological trauma. And Shepard is reliably classy in his final screen role, still wolfishly handsome on the cusp of 70 but emphatically low-key, generously underplaying his icon status. On this evidence, Thoman has sufficient ambition and technique to fuel a fascinating future career behind the camera.

Venue: Oldenburg International Film Festival
Production companies: Wonderbar Productions, Before The Door Pictures
Cast: Mireille Enos, Sam Shepard, Goran Visnjic, Vincent Piazza, Nina Arianda
Director-screenwriter: Camille Thoman
Producers: Julian Cautherley, Elizabeth Yng-Wong, Radium Cheung, Corey Moosa, Camille Thoman, Bronwyn Cornelius
Cinematographer: Sebastian Wintero
Editors: Camille Thoman, Robin Hill
Music: James Lavino
110 minutes