Do you remember the first time Michelle Pfeiffer showed up on your radar? Was it courtesy of one of her gangster molls, available in both coke-snorting (Scarface) and gum-snapping (Married to the Mob) varieties? Or was it via her costume dramas, playing passive heartbreakers (The Age of Innocence) and the aggressively heartbroken (Dangerous Liaisons)? Taking zero amounts of shit in Dangerous Minds? Slinking across a piano in The Fabulous Baker Boys? Licking faces in Batman Returns, the movie that inspired a thousand Halloween costumes and prepubescent fetishists? Pfeiffer has played everything from ice queens to hash-slingers, but she still tends to get short shrift in terms of her talent; even post-"comeback" projects, from the woebegone Murder on the Orient Express remake to the WTF biblical parable mother!, come close to reducing her to a "pretty and mysterious" cipher. We talk about how the camera loves her, but not her chops. We think of her first and foremost as a movie star. We sometimes forget she's an actor.
In a perfect world, Where is Kyra? would permanently alter this conversation. Had Pfeiffer made this 20 years ago, you could see it being dismissed sight unseen by cynics as Beautiful Oscar Nominee Goes Slumming. Watching this extraordinary, rigorous, cryptic character study now, it simply registers as arguably the strongest thing she's ever done and inarguably one of the best movies of the year. That's not just because Pfeiffer gives an incredible performance as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown as she plummets toward the poverty line; there are a number of factors that contribute to filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu's drama burrowing under your skin in the best possible way. But watching the way she lets you ride shotgun while this character scrambles for stability, you'll find that's impossible to understate what Pfeiffer brings to this story. She's the light in the darkness, sometimes literally. She's the human behind the headline.
When we meet Kyra, she's two years out of a job and taking care of her sick, elderly mother (Suzanne Shepherd). Their Brooklyn apartment isn't shabby, but it's edging toward threadbare. She can't afford a new skirt for an interview; she can't seem to catch a break. When Mom passes away, Kyra sells her furniture and starts hitting up any place with a Now-Hiring sign in the window. A surprisingly sweet barfly (Kiefer Sutherland) helps out a bit, but he's struggling to make ends meet as well, and she's not after a handout. Every so often, the movie cuts to an old woman shuffling down the street, through parking lots, into a bank. At first, you assume it's a flashback to Kyra's mom. But the more these scenes keep popping up, the more you start to wonder what, exactly, is going on here ....
Dosunmu takes his time in confirming your suspicions, and when he does, Where is Kyra? starts to double as a dread-inducing thriller: How long before our heroine runs out of options altogether and has to answer for some of the things she's doing to stay afloat? As with his previous film, the equally stunning diaspora-drama Mother of George (2013), this Nigeria-born director knows how to capture everyday people in flux – between homes, between identities, between cultures and paychecks. Armed with a script co-credited to Darci Picoult, he manages to slowly detail what happens to a person running out of money and time without turning the entire affair into poverty porn. He's equally at good at going gritty or graceful, and his work as a photographer has honed his eye for negative space; you can feel how his framing keeps penning Kyra in, backing her into a corner, closing her in as the world around her constricts with every dollar spent.
He's helped immensely by Bradford Young, who's established himself as one of the most gifted cinematographers working today – just glance at virtually any frame of Arrival, Selma or A Most Violent Year, to name only three outstanding examples. But with this film, he's determined to go full Gordon Willis and out-dark the New Hollywood "Prince of Darkness." Every shadow becomes an abyss; some shots seem to be physically sucking light into the image like a black hole. There are more breathtaking silhouettes per capita in Where Is Kyra? than is probably legal or healthy – one, in which the cherry from Pfeiffer's cigarette glows out of the gloom, is hall-of-fame–worthy. Yet it never feels as if gorgeousness for gorgeousness' sake is the goal here. Even when the visuals hover on the border between stylized and overstylized, they still complement the character's gradual descent into increasingly desperate measures rather than eclipse it. The Seventies got the man who shot The Godfather, Klute, etc., and we get Young – and we're equally as blessed.
Still, this is Pfeiffer's show. She never makes Kyra seem like a caricature, a class-conscious symbol of social issues or a complete mess in a dress. She makes her feel like that frazzled person you saw the other day running for the bus stop, or at the end of the bar scraping through her purse, or frantically trying to keep her shit together while others pretend not to notice. She gives you panic, and sadness, and joy – that smile when she first lets Sutherland in to her sphere – and eventually, the sense that anybody is capable of crossing a line when their dignity risks disintegrating. Every one of Pfeiffer's close-ups, and there are many, tell Kyra's story. It's a performance of such nuance and vulnerability, so quietly catastrophic in communicating this woman's accumulation of loss. Looking back at some of her work, you wonder if this brainy actor was waiting out her screen-bombshell status – that if she could have, she'd have gone straight from ingenue to Gena Rowlands. This movie proves she's officially entered that phase. You feel like she's just started a new act.