Here’s what occurs in the first 10 minutes of Jane Weinstock’s electrifying second feature, The Moment: After weeks of unreturned phone calls, Lee (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a war photojournalist, barges into her ex-boyfriend’s (Martin Henderson) house to retrieve her cameras. He’s nowhere around, his goldfish are dead, and an uneaten dinner on his table craws with maggots.
But before Lee can process this, she’s scuttling off to her gallery opening, where her estranged daughter (Alia Shawkat) shows up, still rigidly unforgiving of something Lee has done. She is further haunted by her own photograph of a Somali woman who died from a suicide bomb seconds after the portrait was taken. Lee herself sustained injuries, which itch unbearably; she claws at her clothes in the gallery’s bathroom and, seconds later, emerges completely naked. It’s psych ward time.
In lesser hands, some of the more traditional thriller plot elements that follow — did Lee kill her ex-boyfriend? Did her jealous, impulsive daughter? Is he even dead? — could come off as trite or overwrought. And some of the story plays slightly like Vertigo with the genders reversed.
What’s fresh is Weinstock’s interweaving of flashbacks, slightly altered versions of flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, so that viewers must work as hard as Lee to determine past from present; you may feel amnesiac yourself by film’s end. Leigh is an alarmingly chameleonic actress, sinewy and haggard one minute, soft and wounded the next, and Shawkat is an adept student of her mannerisms.
The generally somber film even manages some comic relief, casting Meat Loaf, shorn of his Viking warrior locks, as a no-nonsense, pitiless detective.