The Uncertainty Principle
How much do we really know someone? That’s the main question posed by Claire in Motion, a quiet, uneasy new film co-written and directed by Lisa Robinson and Annie J. Howell. A sort of hybrid mystery/character study, the movie stars Betsy Brandt (best known for her role as Marie Schrader in Breaking Bad) as a math professor at a Midwestern university whose husband—a fellow academician—fails to return from a hiking trek. There’s no hysteria or big, crashing emotions in this missing-persons drama; conversely, it’s a slowly-unfolding account of a woman traditionally ruled by logic and order, as she comes to terms with the unexpected and (initially) incomprehensible.
When Claire Hunger’s husband Paul, an ornithology professor and nature-loving survivalist type, fails to return from his solo hiking trek on schedule, she doesn’t immediately panic. That emotion sets in slowly as the days turn into weeks, the police call off their fruitless search, and the couple’s young son Connor (an exceptionally poised Zev Haworth) begins to accept the inevitable—that his father probably died somewhere out in the wilderness. Even then, however, Claire refuses to believe Paul is gone and keeps going back into the woods to hunt for him. (Overcast skies and a slightly greenish palette give everything a heavy, muted tone that accentuates the sense of disquiet.) When the town’s police chief mentions having interviewed a grad student with whom Paul was working on an art project, the usually under-control Claire is clearly rattled.
It’s just the beginning of an uncomfortable, borderline-hostile series of meetings with Allison (Anna Margaret Hollyman, very convincing), an “artist-blogger-inventor” who clearly knew a side of Paul that was hidden to Claire, mainly his interest in art and a desire for freedom. As Connor is drawn to the warm, free-spirited Allison, whose breezy declarations and intense interest in Claire verge on creepy, the latter becomes more upset as she comes to the realization that Paul had some major secrets. (She repeatedly watches a seemingly prophetic home video in which he asks her to look at him. “I am looking at you,” she replies, frustrated. “You’re not, not really,” is his sad response.) Though she doesn’t let on to Connor, who has come to his own conclusions, the grief-struck Claire is profoundly shaken by Allison and her relationship with Paul.
As Claire’s reserve finally weakens, she starts to unravel and question. At one point she gets drunk in a local bar and runs into an ex-student in the ladies room. “Did I seem to know what I was doing?,” she wonders about the class she taught. That same night she drunkenly philosophizes to a pseudo love interest about her attraction to math as an antidote to all the uncertainty in the world. Brandt is quite good in this role, her watchful, slightly aloof demeanor finally cracking under duress, but never into full-blown hysteria, which would be unnatural for a woman like Claire.
Eventually she seemingly acknowledges realities about both Paul and herself, tentatively accepting the very freedom and uncertainty that’s so foreign to her. Aside from its naturalistic performances and thoughtful, unhurried pace, Claire in Motion boasts realistically flawed characters and a plot that’s mysterious enough to keep us watching and wondering. That’s no mean achievement.
Claire in Motion opens on Friday, January 13, at Cinema Village and on-demand.