Editorial note: Interview with filmmaker Jane Weinstock follows review.

“You hurt people; it’s just what you do.” Those are the spiteful but honest words from a war photojournalist’s daughter in Jane Weinstock’s new feature length film, The Moment, currently featured in the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. In this suspenseful tale of one woman’s shattered memories and her agonized search for the truth, Jennifer Jason Leigh gives us an unforgettable portrayal that leaves us guessing even after the resolution.

From the opening credits, with all its lushly beautiful images — all the heat and mystery of the Middle East with its head scarves and parched landscapes — we know we’re in different terrain. It sets up a big premise for the filmmaker to deliver, and even if such footage is only a small part of the story that takes place largely state-side, it pulls us into the moment.

There’s a non-linear, fragmentary quality to the film that suits the fractured consciousness of Lee herself. Injured by a suicide bomber in Somalia, she floats for a short time in a morphine-induced haze. Then there’s the playing and replaying of her lover’s disappearance — did she or did she not put the pills in his drink that led to his demise? In a more lucid moment — if we’re to believe there are any lucid moments for our protagonist — she meets Peter, a fellow patient in the Southern California sanitarium who looks uncannily like her lost lover John. He seems harmless enough, even handsome in his own diffident, carefree way. But who is he? Is he safe?

We want to believe he is, we want to trust in his easy friendliness, but in Lee’s world, nothing is safe. In another moment, she advises, “I expect bad things to happen and they do.” Luck is an illusion. A friend who dies in the bombing has a so-called lucky name. Then there’s the bluebird tattoo on the missing lover’s arm — that’s a lucky symbol too. The director filters the men through Lee’s prism and that’s hardly trustworthy. She tells Peter she “almost died for a lot of reasons, not all admirable.” Pressed to describe her family, she confesses that her father was an “asshole who worked for the FBI and he was not nice to her mother.” The director has chosen to wrap her main character as well as the supporting players in layers of ennui and we have to trust her to unravel the whole business for us.

When Lee returns home, attending a prestigious one-woman exhibit of her works — Lee Johnson at War 1985-2011 — she briefly leaves the reception. When she returns to the crowd — a visually powerful, wordless moment in the script where she becomes the subject of her own show — no question is left in the viewer’s mind that she has suffered a psychic break. As a visual shock effect, it’s one of the film’s high points.

Alia Shawkat plays Lee’s daughter with a plump plain-prettiness. She sports a body still remembering its baby fat, and a face splayed with freckles and darkly expressive eyes. She is so atypical of most young actresses today; she’s a joy to watch. Whether pouting or posturing, she’s the antithesis of a mother who borders psychically if not physically on gauntness and denial. As for Lee, she exhibits a constant need to fix the moment in her camera lens, an obsession that alienates as much as it brings the other characters close. The actress herself has an elusive brooding quality difficult to pin down. She’s there and not there, slipping from our grasp just when we think we have a handle on her.

Martin Henderson strikes the perfect note in his characterization, managing to be complicated and compliant at the same time. He possesses an easy animal attractiveness to make us believe a woman like Lee would involve herself with him, if only for a time.

Nothing in this film is easily resolved. We expect Lee to go back into the fray of battle, the unknown. As she tells her daughter, “I’m a war photographer. That’s what I do.” When she once again slips from our grasp, we’ve come to expect that’s what such obsessive personalities do. In the real world, we have had journalists, the likes of Marie Colvin and others, who have shown us with their lives what’s at risk.

Keeping the audience in the dark for such a prolonged period is no easy task. We have to believe there’s a payoff at the end of the ride. The film is weakest when it allows certain scenes to plod along in a kind of situational melodrama, laden with tidbits of dialogue that don’t always catapult us forward on our journey. Conversely, the script works best when it manages to blur the supposed reality on screen through Lee’s own warped consciousness. Weinstock has the good sense to let the camera linger over the landscape of her star’s face, for Leigh is an actress who knows how to convey a deep and troubled inner life.

It’s an impressive crew Weinstock has assembled. In addition to her co-writer Gloria Norris, and cinematographer James Laxton, there’s the hypnotic music of Nathan Larson to pull us into the mire. An added treat are the photo stills of Lynsey Addario, a war photographer who was actually captured along with several other journalists in Libya and survived.

There are few masters of the suspense genre, with Hitchcock at the undisputed top of the heap. Billy Wilder’s noir sensibility in such films as Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard come in at a close second. Roman Polanski put the hard-edged light of Los Angeles that Weinstock occasionally teases us with here in his incomparable Chinatown. That she has taken it upon herself to explore such risky territory, with The Moment only her second feature film, is commendable enough.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

(After a viewing of the film, I had an opportunity to interview Jane Weinstock the following morning at the Hilton Fashion offices in New York City. There’s a scholarly quality about her, a quiet, thoughtful demeanor, without any of the easy insistence or theatricality in conveying her message. Rather, she was constantly focused on the matter at hand.)

GALO: I was particularly intrigued by this film. You and Gloria Norris wrote this together. From my experience, it’s unusual to find women directors approaching this kind of suspense or style in filmmaking, that kind of psychological intrigue. What was the genesis of this?

JW: Gloria and I brainstormed. We began with the mother-daughter story and we got to the photography pretty quickly. My husband’s a photographer and I’ve always wanted to develop that, so I was around it all the time.

GALO: You must have been a Hitchcock fan? Vertigo, for instance.

JW: Yes, but Spellbound is probably the film closest to this. It’s about a man who has lost his memory and he is convinced that he must have murdered someone he was in competition with. Then there’s another film, Rear Window, which is about a photojournalist.

(Interview continued on next page)