Who is Annie Clark? For some, this might be a more literal question. It is for the limo driver (played by Ezra Buzzington) in the opening scene of Bill Benz’s The Nowhere Inn, a brash sort who’s never heard of this supposedly famous musician he’s ferrying across the desert. “It’s okay,” Clark replies. “I’m not for everybody.” But the driver remains so vexed that he puts his son on the phone; the son’s never heard of her either. Clark suggests that perhaps they know her by her stage name, St. Vincent—that “maybe that’s where the confusion lies?” Still, even after singing a bit of her 2017 single “New York,” there’s no spark of recognition from either man. “Don’t worry,” the chauffeur promises. “We’ll find out who you are.”
This portentous line tees up the more metaphorical question that The Nowhere Inn is interested in exploring—and that those who already know St. Vincent will be asking when the film arrives in theaters and on demand September 17. Since emerging with 2007’s Marry Me, Clark, raised in Dallas, has built her career on a series of David Bowie–like metamorphoses, from the baroque, slightly twee indie pop of her early years to the strung-out Lower East Side soul of the recent Daddy’s Home. In The Nowhere Inn, she’s playing with another guise: a slightly exaggerated version of Annie Clark who asks her best friend, Sleater-Kinney guitarist and Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein, to direct a documentary about St. Vincent’s Masseduction tour. As Brownstein soon discovers, this isn’t such a problem onstage, where St. Vincent struts about in space-age dominatrix suits and stilettos, fully in command of her persona. For ninety minutes a night, at least, there is no mistaking who St. Vincent is. It’s in all the moments in between—when St. Vincent becomes Annie Clark again and trades the latex for comfy sweats and the shredding guitar for playing Scrabble on her tour bus—that the real confusion lies.
The Nowhere Inn initially plays this disparity for awkward laughs, as Brownstein struggles to reconcile St. Vincent’s glamorously alien performances with Brownstein’s nice, nerdy friend who enjoys going to farmers’ markets and waxes rhapsodic about radishes. Telling Clark that her life “isn’t crazy or interesting enough to make a documentary about,” Brownstein encourages her to try being more of a rock star—to “heighten” herself a little for the camera’s sake. For the first thirty minutes or so, the film has fun with Clark failing to be properly aloof and mysterious. But very quickly, something within Clark snaps. Declaring, “I can be St. Vincent all the time,” Clark disappears fully behind her blunt wigs and designer sunglasses, affecting a distant cool even in her private moments with Brownstein. The latter’s frustration soon calcifies into terror as she watches her friend transform into a preening, narcissistic monster. And it’s here that The Nowhere Inn undergoes its own makeover, trading cringe comedy for creeping menace.
This is also when The Nowhere Inn becomes similarly conflicted over what sort of movie it wants to be. Is it a music-biz satire about the conflict between rock star fantasy and dull reality? A psychological horror film about fragmented identity? The log line of The Nowhere Inn suggests This is Spinal Tap by way of Mulholland Drive—an ambitious conceit that, unfortunately, never quite pans out. It’s not funny enough to be the former, not nearly weird enough to be the latter. And as an interrogation of what it means to be Annie Clark specifically, the film feels both like an extension of the inscrutable aura she’s cultivated and a mocking evasion of it. The film’s promise to find out who St. Vincent is proves to be another joke, one directed at the viewer for even asking.
Nonetheless, to those who already know who St. Vincent is, there is value in probing that more metaphorical question, even without a definitive answer. Clark, deservedly or not, has gained a reputation in the press for being unknowable and difficult—giving borderline-hostile interviews from behind impenetrable sunglasses, offering frosty, one-word replies, and, recently, even seeking to kill articles she doesn’t like. To promote Masseduction, Clark created what would prove to be the genesis of The Nowhere Inn: a series of fake press-conference videos for Instagram, also co-scripted by Brownstein, in which Clark robotically doled out responses to all those stock journalist questions she was so tired of answering. What does your album title mean? What’s it like being a woman in music? And, most pointedly, Are Annie Clark and St. Vincent the same person? (“Honestly, you’d have to ask her,” she deadpanned.)
The Nowhere Inn riffs on this “difficult” persona, seemingly arguing, as Clark did in those satirical videos, that it’s largely a defensive reaction to the invasiveness and inanity of rock star life. Throughout the film, Clark is constantly being asked things and asked for things. She’s forced to validate her supposed celebrity, not only for Brownstein’s cameras or that pushy limo driver, but for bouncers who don’t recognize her face from the posters plastered all around the arenas she’s playing. Clark submits to grabby autograph sessions and fan encounters and endures lazy questions from a magazine writer who barely pays attention to their interview, then prevails upon Clark for a plus-one to that night’s show. In the film’s most strikingly personal thread, Brownstein insists that she doesn’t want to “exploit family drama” by talking about Clark’s imprisoned father, whose incarceration and 2019 release inspired the recent Daddy’s Home. But as Brownstein becomes increasingly desperate to get something “authentic” for her film, she blindsides Clark by forcing her to confront it, which prompts Clark to lash out, “That’s why I make music—to get away from this!”
Fortunately, Clark and Brownstein are too steeped in postmodern irony, and too naturally funny, to allow The Nowhere Inn to slip completely into sermonizing about the burdens of fame. The film finds humor in them too, most obviously in a scene in which Dakota Johnson plays herself as Clark’s girlfriend—a stand-in for other movie stars, like Cara Delevigne and Kristen Stewart, whom Clark has dated in the past. As Clark and Johnson loll around in lingerie, forcing Brownstein to film them having sex, Brownstein is given the tawdry, voyeuristic peek that all those tabloids spent so many years chasing after. In another standout sequence, Clark dons a cowboy hat and a fringed Western shirt to visit her “family” back in Dallas, where she shoots guns, milks cows, and bakes her blue-ribbon pecan pie to show off her Texas bona fides—another, if relatively less overcooked, aspect of the St. Vincent narrative.
Benz, a fellow Portlandia veteran, balances these more broadly satirical moments with that sketch show’s sense of underplayed drollness, often allowing shots of Brownstein’s visible discomfort to provide most of the punch lines. But as Clark becomes more explicitly villainous, Benz leans into the horror of it all, conjuring visuals that feel heavy-handed—not to mention recycled. The Nowhere Inn is filled with imagery of reflections, with Clark’s and Brownstein’s faces framed and refracted in countless mirrors and across artfully staged TV sets. Scenes are swaddled in bloodred velvet curtains, shot through with harsh glares of strobe and neon lighting and surrounded by hallucinatory fog. It’s all darkly, symbolically beautiful, and it certainly makes for an arresting pairing with the live footage of St. Vincent’s stage shows. Yet you’ve also probably seen it before. Ultimately, The Nowhere Inn evokes so many other directors and movies that have dabbled in similar themes of fragmented identity and the deadly costs of fame—David Lynch, Nicolas Winding Refn, Satoshi Kon, Black Swan—that it can’t help but suffer from the comparisons. Even the film’s loudly ambiguous, head-twisting conclusion seems less provocative than perfunctory, as though it’s a concession to the endings these sorts of movies demand.
“I know who I am. Why does it matter if anyone else does?” Clark asks Brownstein near the end of The Nowhere Inn, a moment that seems to rebuke not only the press she’s sparred with over the years but also anyone who comes to this film expecting something more personal or revealing. It’s a point further illustrated in one of the plot through lines, which sees Clark and Brownstein collaborating on the film’s title song, building it from the ground up across jam-session scenes that track their dissolving partnership. As the two mull over what the song should be about, Clark initially suggests “the alienation of touring,” but Brownstein shoots her down. She also nixes “heartbreak” (“very cloying”), and the “well of sorrow that everybody has from, like, childhood trauma” (“very dark”). The joke is that these are the same themes that The Nowhere Inn ultimately touches on. The film argues that they’re all merely conceits—just some familiar chords to strike and more rock-star guises for Clark to inhabit on-screen as deftly as she does on her records. None of them can ever be the “real” St. Vincent. They’re all her, but they’re not all of her. And besides, what does any of that have to do with her music?
Of course, St. Vincent diehards are already well versed in the ways these various preoccupations manifest themselves in Clark’s art. As such, they may leave disappointed that The Nowhere Inn doesn’t really deepen our understanding of them, while also feeling chastised for even wanting it to. And for those who don’t already know St. Vincent—who may be drawn in by the film’s more overarching questions about celebrity and the age-old battle between authenticity and fame—it will surely prove too self-referential and repetitive to ever be truly satisfying. Like its subject, The Nowhere Inn can be intoxicating to watch: it’s elusive and droll and totally okay with the fact that it’s not for everybody. Yet it’s not always clear who, exactly, it is for.
But maybe that’s okay. In the film, Clark argues that when it comes to judging art, we place too much emphasis on the present—that the true measure is whether art lasts. “Half the time, people don’t even realize that it’s wonderful until, like, generations later, and then it’s super revered,” she says. Perhaps The Nowhere Inn will be similarly primed for rediscovery once its feints and mysteries are allowed to stand fully on their own, when people are less interested in finding out who St. Vincent is than simply marveling at all she’s done.