“A man goes on a journey for a slice of apple pie“. That’s the logline for Sleepwalk, but rest assured, Filipe Melo’s visually grand and emotionally resonant short film possesses much more intrigue and humanity than this simple story hook suggests. A lonesome stranger, reminiscent of the tight-lipped gunslingers of yesteryear, walks into a diner by the road with a very specific request and will accept no substitute. His stubbornness keeps the viewer guessing, the film’s enticement aided by the formidable cinematography and evocative score. What is it about this apple pie that makes the protagonist go to such great lengths? When you finally sense what’s behind the man’s determination, your heart drops.
The film is a slow burn, with immense care lavished on the smallest details of the dusty roadside diner setting and to the deliberate actions within scenes. Spaces and silences play a large role in the narrative, with plenty of cinematic widescreen compositions interspersed. The film shouldn’t really work for a distracted online audience, and admittedly it does take its time getting where it’s going, but the sheer oddity of the request and the cohesiveness of the world realized on the screen combine to hold your attention effectively. And, of course, where it goes is so good…
Sleepwalk is Melo’s solo-directorial debut, which he adapted from his own short comic book story of the same name. One of the advantages of this process was that he basically had an already finished storyboard at his hands when he approached the visual realization with DoP Federico Cantini.
Apart from the color correction to achieve Sleepwalk‘s warm, nostalgic look, another interesting thing about the cinematic style is how the film team used VFX to enhance the scenery, employing digital trickery and a level that feels discordant for such a stripped-down drama. For example, in one of the earliest shots, when the protagonist drives down a country road, the effects team digitally added trees and hills to amplify the impression of the rural surroundings. One could argue that this focus on the visual details of the scenery are also rooted in Melo’s experience as a comic book and graphic novel writer.
Given the film’s nature, one might be surprised to learn that Filipe Melo is actually from Portugal and the film was technically a Portuguese production – although shot with a local crew in California. But then again, it is the quality of an outsider looking in that captures so many aspects we have learned about the American West from decades of watching Hollywood movies.
Sleepwalk uses these cinematic assumptions to create a moody ambiance through tropes that are as American as… well, apple pie. Which is no wonder, since the scenery and general atmosphere seem to be borrowed from (modern) westerns, the most American genre of them all.
Where hangings and lynchings are part of the Western folklore, Sleepwalk takes a politically subdued, yet emotionally fierce look at a prisoner on death row. The film’s mysterious, transcendent narrative stems from its meticulous build-up to the final scene, which serves as the emotional payoff and still leaves enough open. The interaction between the white central character Lloyd, who turns out to be a warden at a Texas state prison, and the black inmate Darren about to face a death penalty, is short but meaningful.
We don’t know much about either character, really. We know that Lloyd seems to be a man of his word and that Darren used to get in trouble before, which probably is what led him to his imprisonment. We can suspect that the bond between them was strong enough for Lloyd to take on the trip and confront Darren’s mother. This was most certainly a personal favor beyond Lloyd’s professional duties, but he knew how much this particular last supper, and everything it entailed, would mean to Darren. Everything else about their relationship–maybe even friendship–is left open for speculation, which is also one of the beautiful things about Sleepwalk. Both the film itself and its characters don’t need to say much to relay everything that needs to be communicated.
As in real life, one heartfelt “Thank you” can be the most powerful thing to express what another person and their actions mean to you. Through this, the story finds hope in a simple gesture even within these dire circumstances; the fulfilled promise from a fellow man and a slice of home-made apple pie.