A spider’s web of incomplete moments, Tom Noonan's What Happened Was... sees empty spaces and awkward pauses as a kind of connective tissue between lost souls. For proof, look no further than the title. It's incomplete, open, yearning for an explanation that will never come. Still, hope resides in the ellipsis: the always-present possibility for personal understanding that drives us forward despite the rigors of daily life. Set entirely in a New York City apartment during a date between co-workers Jackie (Karen Sillas) and Michael (Noonan), two lonely professionals meeting on personal turf for the first and possibly only time, What Happened Was...examines the way tone and rhythm define a contained physical space.
Throughout the couple’s strange, tense, and illuminating conversation, covering everything from workplace gossip to gender politics, the room’s mood tips from one direction to the next like a woozy sailboat bumping up against jagged rocks. There's an undeniable rhythm to the way Noonan's film unfolds, slowly, deceptively. Clocks tick, televisions echo, and clothes ruffle, instilling a sense of monotony to the proceedings, but the intense focus on facial expressions, and the subtle and seamless dolly shots through Jackie’s living room, make this very theatrical set-up entirely cinematic. Layers of emotional artifice melt away and time becomes irrelevant, forcing two opposing human forces to confront what it truly means to occupy the same space.
Duration is everything in What Happened Was…, and ittakes time for Jackie and Michael to feel each other out in such a confined place. They figuratively dance around trivial subjects over wine and later, during the wonderfully tense dinner sequence. Yet as the film progresses, both characters open up, flirting with the possibility that someone new might embrace their private persona, even as they delve into some truly dark subject matter.
The brilliantly impressionistic sequence where Jackie reads aloud from her published children’s book in a cherry-red dressing room exemplifies the interpersonal evolution between the two characters. It’s a surprising narrative dip that explores themes of incest, manipulation, and murder, something closer to an operatic requiem than anything influenced by Grimm’s Fairytales. As Michael listens, confounded at Jackie’s violent and shocking reading, he begins to have visions of the fictional characters referenced in the book, hallucinations bridging her wacked-out prose with his overactive subconscious. While the experience is torment for him, it’s also intoxicating for us—Michael's sweaty brow and shaken are nerves a direct result of Jackie’s honest artistic expression. One would expect such a pressure-cooker moment in a Polanski film, yetWhat Happened Was…is in some ways even more disturbing, stripping this horrific moment of all genre, denying easy aesthetic access.
After spending a lengthy amount of time in this sublime and menacing headspace, one can easily get caught in film’s vast subtext-driven world. As much as it is about language, What Happened Was… is also about architecture, the way Jackie’s wall of large windows hint at a more dynamic world beyond, creating a kind of reverse-Rear Window effect for the audience to consider. The fleeting amount of time Jackie and Michael spend together once again evokes that striking ellipsis in the title—the endless pursuit of interpersonal connection that feels akin to a life-long process, not a Hollywood ending. It's as if one moment you're talking and having a good time, then suddenly everything changes and…