The protagonist of The Moment, the second film from writer/director Jane Weinstock, is Lee Johnson (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an American war photographer who is back home to recuperate after sustaining injuries from a suicide bomber in Somalia. While convalescing, she compiles her photographs into an exhibit and book entitled, appropriately enough, Lee Johnson: At War. As the film progresses, however, it becomes apparent that Lee is really at war with herself, struggling to assert her sanity, disentangle memories from fantasies, and assuage her guilt over a series of unfortunate events.
After a breakdown at the opening of her photography exhibit, Lee is put into psychiatric care by her ex-husband (Navid Negahban) and daughter (Alia Shawkat). There, she meets Peter (Martin Henderson), a defense attorney suffering panic attacks since a client whom he had successfully defended against charges of homicide returned to his office and murdered his assistant. Peter bears an uncanny resemblance to John (also Henderson), a former teacher with whom Lee recently had a brief affair and who has subsequently gone missing. Unable to recall the events of their last night together, Lee grows concerned that she may have had something to do with his disappearance.
Weinstock and co-writer Gloria Norris construct the film as a psychological mystery-thriller, cutting back and forth between the past and the present in a manner that encourages the audience to piece together the narrative alongside Lee. Using handheld cameras and desaturated colors in the present-day scenes to convey Lee’s confused and medicated state, Weinstock and cinematographer James Laxton ably establish a visual shorthand to help navigate the twisting chronology. But despite the aesthetic and thematic motivations for the puzzle box structure, The Moment’s reliance upon red herrings and deferred narrative resolution ultimately cheapens an otherwise sympathetic portrayal of PTSD.
Jennifer Jason Leigh, in an all too rare starring role, excels as a woman besieged by guilt. From the time it forced her to spend away from her daughter to the death of her translator and traveling companion Hawa (Anna Diop), Lee’s livelihood is also the source of her pain. Eventually, her regret becomes toxic, disallowing her to heal mentally from the trauma of the war and forcing her to fixate upon those things which she is unable to change, tipping her slowly into madness. Leigh invests Lee with a deep-set sadness and an unsentimental pathos which anchors both the character and the film, grounding its more implausible developments and redeeming the gimmick of the unreliable narrator.
Unfortunately, the film adds up to less than the sum of its parts, and as the same few flashbacks keep repeating with minor variations, the effect is more frustrating than revealing. The Moment flirts with the kind of subjective discombobulation that characterized much of Alfred Hitchcock’s finest work — and indeed Weinstock herself has cited his Spellbound as an influence on her film — but it pulls too many of its punches to really be satisfying as either a psychological portrait or a thriller. For all the strength both in front of and behind the camera, The Moment feels frustratingly inconsequential, never fully capitalizing upon its clever and intriguing premise.