Once a prominent fixture on movie screens, Michelle Pfeiffer sightings have become increasingly rare in recent years. It’s not that the three time Oscar-nominated actress — whose string of ‘80s and ‘90s hits include Married to the Mob, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Batman Returns, and Dangerous Minds — has stopped performing; it’s more that she tends to work in batches, appearing in several films in a compressed time frame and then taking a prolonged break. The last time we were treated to multiple Pfeiffer features was 2012-2013, with back-to-back appearances in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, Alex Kurtzman’s People Like Us, and Luc Besson’s The Family.
Now, after a four-year break, 2017 is shaping up to be a four-film Pfeiffersance, one that kicks off with her Sundance debut, Where is Kyra?, a psychological drama directed by festival veteran Andrew Dosunmu, whose previous features, 2011’s Restless City and 2013’s Mother of George, both premiered in Park City. Her big year continues in May with The Wizard of Lies, HBO’s dramatization of the infamous Bernie Madoff case, with Pfeiffer playing Madoff’s wife Ruth opposite Robert De Niro. She’s also a part of two end-of-year Oscar hopefuls, Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the Agatha Christie classic Murder on the Orient Express and Darren Aronofsky’s mysterious new film Mother, also starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem.
Related: Read all of our Sundance coverage
Taken as a whole, it’s a diverse slate of movies that should highlight Pfeiffer’s rich range as a performer — and make us miss her all over again if she opts to take another multi-year break when 2018 rolls around. She’s certainly the driving force of Kyra, a stridently glum movie where the oppressive style frequently threatens to overwhelm her subtly shaded work. Pfeiffer plays the title character, a middle-aged woman living in in a gloomy Queens apartment two years after losing her job and leaving her marriage. Initially certain that she’ll be able to support herself, a steady stream of rejections even for menial day gigs has dealt a massive blow to her self-confidence. When we meet her, she’s a virtual shut-in whose main job is caring for her infirm mother. And even that small piece of stability is abruptly pulled away when her mom dies, leaving Kyra with mounting debts and no way to begin paying them off.
Well…no way, save one. Due to a filing mistake on the death certificate, Kyra is still receiving her mother’s pension checks, though she can’t cash them on Mom’s behalf. So she dons a grey wig and dark sunglasses and picks up a cane to impersonate her mother in order to collect the meager amounts that just barely cover her expenses. Clearly, this is a plan doomed to fail: Kyra knows it, her new boyfriend — reformed troublemaker Doug (Kiefer Sutherland) — knows it, and the audience knows it, too. So the question that underlines the movie isn’t “Will Kyra be caught,” but rather, “When will Kyra be caught…and how much of her mind will be left intact?”
Working with celebrated cinematographer Bradford Young — nominated for an Oscar yesterday for his terrific lensing of Arrival — Dosunmu pursues a photographic style that’s heavy on shadows, a visual metaphor for Kyra’s descent into increasingly dark places. It’s an appropriate thematic conceit in theory, but in execution, the film’s severe gloom has the unwelcome impact of obscuring the actors’ faces in key dramatic moments, threatening to blunt the full impact of their performances. If you’re film is primarily a character study, it helps for the audience to be able to see the characters.
Fortunately, Pfeiffer resourcefully communicates Kyra’s increasing desperation through the other tools in her arsenal including voice, posture and gesture. (Sutherland, meanwhile, relies mainly on that gravelly voice that served him so well while running hither and yon on 24 for all those years.) Perhaps it helps that she’s played a variation this role before: in some ways, Kyra feels like who Pfeiffer’s buttoned-up Selina Kyle might have become had she not found a new lease on life by donning that infamous rubber catsuit. Selina went from introvert to extrovert, whereas Kyra withdraws further and further into herself until she can’t find a way out of her self-designed trap. Where is Kyra? itself may be a non-starter, but Pfeiffer begins her comeback year on solid footing.
Michelle Pfeiffer in ‘The Family’: Watch a featurette: