The film is beautiful but 100 percent joyless. Jenny Baptiste, Paul Sarkis Courtesy of Great Point Media/Paladin

There was a time, not long ago, when the idea of making Michelle Pfeiffer invisible would have seemed an impossible task for even the most talented filmmaker. But invisibility, and its more active counterpart, disappearance, are constant nemeses to the great actress in her almost unbearably grim new drama, Where Is Kyra?

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Even the title lets you know about the peril she's in.

Eking out a meager existence in the deep outer-borough of New York most of us see only from the windows of passing trains or in the title sequences of films, Kyra spends her days taking care of her very old mother, helping her into the tub, laboriously walking with her to the bank to cash her pension checks, fetching her water, whiskey, and oxygen. The apartment they share isn't tiny, but it's musty, dimly lit, and, except for when the mother lapses into a coughing fit, practically silent.

The action, of which there is little, is filmed from a distance and held in little sub-frames of lamplight and deep dusk, as if darkness is the default mode of existence, encroaching at all times. And it is, a darkness—courtesy of master cinematographer Bradford Young—built of layers upon layers of dread, like when things are as bad as they can possibly be, and then get worse.

Kyra's life proceeds from the grimness of being your "failing" mother's only caretaker to dressing up in her clothes and impersonating her agonized gait because it's the only way to cash her pension checks after she dies. Every day she looks for work, but there are no jobs—or they've just been filled. She winds up wearing a sandwich board emblazoned with mocking "$$$$," handing flyers to people who refuse to see her.

Movie logic tells us Kyra is going to meet a savior, or find a bag of money, or learn it's really all a horrible dream, but Nigerian-born director Andrew Dosunmu and screenwriter Darci Picoult operate within a different logic. They're pressed up against the glass of America in 2018, and riveted by the darkness that surrounds people without resources.

Kyra's phone gets turned off. She gets an eviction notice. And then the cops come knocking. The only respite in her life comes in the unlikely form of Kiefer Sutherland, a downstairs neighbor half a rung up from her on account of his part-time job in a nursing home.

They meet in a bar (she has to pay for her rum and Coke with what appear to be hundreds of nickels), and turn to each other for physical solace that brings no lasting comfort, and indeed, only magnifies the damage ahead.

Where Is Kyra? is an unorthodox comeback vehicle for Pfeiffer—the film is truly a total bummer, the rare example of cinema that is both beautifully made and 100 percent joyless. But it remains noteworthy, and maybe even important to see as an unflinching statement about the exponential indignities of being anything other than rich in America.

Even movies can't pretend there's anything left to be optimistic about.