Michelle Pfeiffer’s Most Powerful Role Wasn’t a Superhero
Feb 27, 2023
Michelle Pfeiffer is a force to be reckoned with in a film career spanning four decades. From Scarface (1983), Hairspray (2007), to Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023), she commands the screen by playing dramatic, comedic, and heroic characters. Where is Kyra? (2017) depicts a very different woman then audiences might be used to seeing the actress take on, but she’s compelling all the same. This is not a glamorous or a colorful performance, it’s an unflinching, reality-bites character study of a desperate woman careening into impossible, reckless decisions. It’s devastating, though you can’t look away, and as the title poses, you shouldn’t avert your attention either. Descend into Michelle Pfeiffer’s darkest role yet.
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‘Where Is Kyra?’ Paints a Bleak Portrait of Poverty
Image via Great Point Media
The movie opens on unemployed Kyra Johnson (Pfeiffer) caring for her ailing mother Ruth (Suzanne Shepherd) in a small Brooklyn apartment. Their close relationship is sweet, with Kyra being patient and protective of the older, slower woman. After her mother dies, it irreversibly upends the world Kyra has gotten comfortable in. She’s lived on her mother’s pension checks, which are now as gone as Mrs. Johnson is. Without work and constant rejections from job interviews, she can barely afford a drink at the local bar, let alone keep the heat on in the apartment. Without a social circle, she’s alone. Meeting Doug (Kiefer Sutherland) offers Kyra human contact she’s hesitant to admit she craves. He’s a decent guy, who wants to clean up from a past of dishonesty, and their fling appears to heal them from stresses in life. Then Kyra makes everything worse, bringing Doug into a scheme that is doomed from the start.
Director Andrew Dosunmu purposely and stylistically restricts Kyra, electing the audience to actively keep an eye out for her. When she dyes her hair, the camera is positioned straight on her face, the tile wall behind her in clean focus while her face is left blurry. The title does its own job to maintain she stays on everyone’s mind, the big, bold, white letters getting stamped onto the screen that can be interpreted as a question, which by the end, audiences will get an answer to.
Cinematography by Bradford Young (Selma, Arrival) closes in on the titular woman. Dark shadows conceal her in scenes where she should be the center of attention, although being the actress she is, Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance never allows Kyra to slip too far into the void. Mirrors are used to capture Kyra’s movements while she travels in or around a room, as if catching a glimpse of a stranger, not a main character. Overhead bulbs or a small lamp catches her in spots of brightness, while washing dishes, at the funeral home, or in bed. The world is moving away from her, and in these moments she is clinging on.
Where Is Kyra?’s score by Philip Miller is harsh and intense when it kicks in, establishing a deeply uncomfortable sense of anxiety. Industrial noises (sounding like a subway train going by) are mixed in with the metal clicking of a walking cane hitting pavement, this score breathing life into Kyra’s inner turmoil. She isn’t only getting older and drifting toward the margins of society, she’s veering towards becoming forgotten completely. If she’s on edge, so is the audience. Just as jarring as the score, is a sudden burst of carefree joy.
Unable to sell items at a community yard sale, Kyra spots Doug and the two close the space between themselves. She didn’t make much money, yet being with Doug helps her relax. “Are you gonna help me pack up all of this shit?” she asks, the two then elbowing each other playfully. The scene cuts to a wide shot of the community space, all the table’s occupants and potential buyers watching two girls swing a jump rope, with Kyra jumping in the middle. That slow motion gets used here, allows the moment to linger just long enough for the smile on her face to evoke a poignant feeling. The happiness is temporary, but it’s a relief anyway.
‘Where Is Kyra?’ Taps Into Horror Movie Vibes
The return of the dread-inducing ambient score can make you mistake this drama for a horror movie, and it isn’t the only time. Mrs. Johnson haunts several scenes, in what seem to be disjointed moments of the elderly woman glacially walking, making her way home or exploring a mall. On a date with Kyra, Doug recalls an odd experience he had, “I saw a woman today who looked exactly like your mother. I mean, she even walked like her, she walked right in front of my car. It kind of freaked me out.” It isn’t confirmed right away if these are actual memories or maybe dreams, creating a disorienting effect on figuring out its place within the story. While Where Is Kyra? plays with elements from the horror genre – the titular character is certainly in her own horror story – it’s firmly set in a gritty reality.
Youth haunts Kyra. In making financial woes that more difficult, the troubles of ageism keep poking at her. She laments on not being a “spring chicken” with a defeated, sad chuckle. Her clothes don’t fit, aren’t age-appropriate, or are both of these issues at the same time. During a failed interview, she wears a cheetah print jacket over a pink shirt, with a jean skirt that, from the way she tries to fix it, she’s outgrown. Later, Kyra tries to see if she got the job and spots the younger woman they hired instead. Kyra is again stuck being the “older woman” when she interacts with her ex-husband’s pregnant wife. This is how the unexpected scene with Kyra jump roping with the two girls holds further significance. She hasn’t reached an age where she’s incapable of being agile, nor does she succumb to using an oxygen mask like her mother Ruth did. Still, society sees little use of her.
The big reveal is tragic, yet the only way the story can culminate. Doug did see Mrs. Johnson, though not the old woman’s phantom. Kyra has been dressing and acting like her deceased mother in order to accept the pension checks. The walks outside, were all a means to keep up the charade Ruth Johnson is alive should anyone ask questions. Detective Brennan (Tony Okungbowa) enters the movie to do exactly that, investigate a case of fraud by requesting to personally talk to Ruth Johnson. In the final twenty minutes, Kyra accepts the dual role she’s trapped herself into.
Michelle Pfeiffer Finds No Way Out
Image via Great Point Media
Doug is furious after learning the truth but, because he generally does care for her, he partakes in a nerve-racking setup. What follows is a sequence where Kyra prepares for the transformation, putting on the clothes and strapping on the oxygen mask, crosscutting to how Mrs. Johnson would do the same in the past. Throughout the whole movie, Kyra struggles in maintaining her self-worth, and with no way out, ultimately resigns herself to how society views her. The decision to portray herself as her mother for the detective isn’t an airtight solution, thus the outcome is inevitable leaving Kyra speechless while it falls apart.
There is no sense that justice is restored in an ending where a disenfranchised woman, who steals money from her dead mother, is apprehended. The scheme isn’t even foolproof from the start. Kyra started the fraud out of desperation, not from a mastermind attempt in gaming the system. Not only was there a funeral which witnesses attended, there’s the watchful eye of Gary (Babs Olusanmokun), a custodial worker in Kyra’s apartment.
He’s friendly and inviting, though Kyra never adds much to his greetings other than a hasty response. He’s there for the silent ambulance picking up the body of Mrs. Johnson, red and blue lights flashing across his face. He finds Kyra and Doug searching the trash to recover bags of clothes she tossed away in a poor attempt to cover her tracks. And it’s Gary who sees Kyra in her final appearance, handcuffed, getting walked out to a squad car. She was never getting away with the fraud, it was only a matter of time before the fabrication caught up with her.
Michelle Pfeiffer returned to acting in 2017 after a brief hiatus, appearing in Mother!, Where is Kyra?, and Murder on the Orient Express. Of these three roles, Where Is Kyra? is where Pfeiffer gives the more powerfully subtle, nuanced performance. The movie’s gritty, relentless nature paired with its focus on how society restricts this woman from rising above her misfortune becomes fertile soil for a startling performance. Despite the heaviness, or because of it, director Andrew Dosunmu and leading star Michelle Pfeiffer compel us to keep an eye on Kyra Johnson, ensuring she doesn’t fade into the anonymity she most fears.
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