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We like to keep our societal weirdos at a distance. We don’t like to think about how the local child killer/horse f*cker/serial murderer watches Family Feud at the same time we do and eats fried chicken at the same restaurant we do. The further away from us and our reality they are, the better. Thus, we tend to depict their presence in films through a lens of negativity — ominous orchestral themes overpower scenes, shadows bath the deviant’s face and our normal (or normal enough) protagonist looks on in disgust and/or dismay, doing all the judging for us.
Yet, things are never that simple in reality. Some of the most memorable bad guys in film (Hannibal Lecter, The Joker) are given brief moments that let them bear their soul and nature to the audience. For the wonderfully screwed-up protagonist of Sleep Tight, he is given the entire film. This is what makes director/writer Jaume Balagueró’s (REC, REC 2) latest such a fascinating character study and suspense film.
Sure, we glance at people and suspect them to be former or current criminals based on their looks. But, enough viewings of the nightly news has informed me well that most domestic killers seem harmless based on appearances. We are introduced to Cesar (Luis Tosar) as the friendly doorman of an upscale Barcelona apartment, but not before hearing a monologue wherein he admits to having nothing to live for. It’s pretty heavy stuff but who hasn’t felt that way, one time or another? Maybe we don’t think those things while standing on a rooftop, contemplating suicide but, you know, close enough.
Cesar’s solemn introduction paired with his generosity toward the complex’s guests make him an immediately likable and warm character — likable enough to root for him to get whatever he wants. Well, as long as what he wants isn’t to stalk and possibly rape a tenant. Then you realize: Oh wait – that is what he wants, isn’t it? Part of the film’s brilliance is how it slowly introduces us to Cesar’s dark double-life. We are given red flags that quickly leave our conscious, not unlike a predator whose actions can easily be mistaken or overlooked.
Soon enough, we are witnessing Cesar lying under the bed of the complex’s most beautiful tenant, Clara, played by the very lovely and talented Marta Etura. Any thoughts of this being some kinky roleplay between the two is quickly corrected as the film progresses. This is the story of one man’s downward spiral into amorality and those he chooses to take to the bottom with him. It’d spoil the film to say where and how it exactly ends, especially since the tension of these unknowns is what keeps the film exciting despite its economic use of scenery and small cast.
Balagueró proves himself to be a master of suspense in the vein of Hitchcock throughout these scenes that put the viewer on edge. Sometimes it’s for the lives of the tenants. Other times, it’s easy to find yourself rooting for Cesar to stay concealed, if only to avoid the awkward confrontation that will follow. And, occasionally, we find ourselves conflicted between the two. The editing and directing give these scenes a nervous energy; The silence of the film becomes deafening due to fear of what will come next.
Tosar’s portrayal of Cesar is wonderfully nuanced. By day, he is the willing slave of the wealthy tenants that bore him with meaningless chit-chat and gossip. By night, he pries into their lives and confronts them with hostility. Yet, he never shows himself to be a monster and the film never seems to either. Creepy music doesn’t fill the theater, we aren’t shown close-ups of a grotesque face, nor do we see Cesar become a venomous beast. Even during his darkest moments, he seems like a broken, frustrated man — fully aware of his nature and, possibly, ashamed of it.
By the end of the film, after we’ve seen Cesar at his worst, it’s still hard to completely hold him in contempt. Even though he’s done some real heinous shit, Balagueró has framed it all in such a way that it leaves the viewer unsure of how to feel. It’s the kind of character depiction we rarely see of a villain. He isn’t calmly collected, wildly depraved or raving mad. In a way, it makes it all the more disturbing to see just how normal he really is It’s something audiences may think they aren’t interested in, but Sleep Tight has a rhythm and flow to it that makes investing in an unlikely protagonist effortless.