Kristen Stewart has spent enough time on blockbuster film sets to establish a keen understanding of sparkling dialogue, unpredictable plot twists, and Hollywood endings. But her personal tastes — and recent roles in independent productions like Personal Shopper, Equals, and Clouds of Sils Maria —skew towards the unconventional. It's fitting, then, that the first short film Stewart has directed — the 17-minute Come Swim — is for Refinery29's Shatterbox Anthology film series.
The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January, tells a story without the confines or conventions of standard Hollywood fare. There's no linear storyline. The only dialogue is murmured snippets of conversations that run through one man's mind. Watching it feels very much like being jolted awake and struggling for breath. Is it the dream, or the act of no longer dreaming, that makes us feel so alarmed and uneasy?
All of this is to say, don't push play expecting a cut-and-dry narrative with a surface-level interpretation. It's abstract, intense, and thought-provoking. It challenges our perception of reality and illustrates the mysterious manifestations of our inner torments — specifically, heartbreak and anxiety.
Water — rushing from a tap, snaking down a window in a rainstorm, engulfing our protagonist as he fights against the sea — is a recurring theme. The short begins with a close-up shot of an intricately pleated, inky black and charcoal wave. It's the crush of heartbreak, which plunges our hero (Josh Kaye) into what Stewart described as an "existential netherworld."
"Oh dude, this movie is like full-frontal heartbreak," she told Refinery29 earlier this year. "I’m definitely not shying away from that, that’s absolutely what it’s about. It’s that first fall to this existential netherworld. You can attack yourself with memories or, depending on perspective, you can take a step back and say, ‘Actually, it wasn’t so bad. That was fun, we did have fun and it was nice.’"
Billed as "the journey of one man's day coping with anxiety and heartbreak," Come Swim blurs the line between reality and fantasy as our protagonist goes through the motions of carrying out a perfectly average existence while his dark, fevered interior life teems just under the surface. The action flits between the surreal — an insatiable thirst that leaves the man with scorched, cratered skin as he crawls through a desert — and the banalities of ordinary life. A Waffle House. A soulless office cubicle. A morning joint in the bathroom.
The score, composed by musician St. Vincent, alternates between silence, the roar of rushing water, and a static crackle that builds the tension and frays the nerves. What we hear most, though, are the mumbled snatches of conversations between our hero and his ex (Kaye's real-life girlfriend, celebrity stylist Sydney Lopez). These voices taunt him as he replays them in his head, triggering his anxieties and inspiring these extended surrealist sequences. Eventually, he's able to ease into an acceptance.
"I had my two actors play in a pool and talk to each other and I gave them a couple of key words," Stewart explained to Refinery29. "But they said some stuff that we pulled and made really negative and terrifying and kind of ominous in the beginning.
"He’s killing himself with these memories and his brain is so scattered and he literally cannot get the voices out of his head, but in reality it wasn’t so bad. He regrets everything he said and he’s like ‘Ugh, why couldn’t I have just done this different?’ He’s just reevaluating everything and going over every word he ever said to her being like, ‘How could I have saved this, how could I have fixed this, it’s all my fault, I fucked it all up.’ In the second part of the film, you’re just like, ‘Dude you didn’t, it just kind of fell apart, that’s what happened.’ I just wanted to externalize an incredibly internal struggle and then see it again from the outside.”
It all makes for captivating viewing. Even in the short's most surreal moments is a visceral truth that will be familiar, and relatable, to anyone who's gone through some sort of emotional turmoil. And when you have that, you don't need a Hollywood ending.
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