[REVIEW] Stunning THEY REMAIN Leaves Us With ALL The Questions
An article has been floating around positing that horror fans actually hate films like The Witch and The Babadook, saying that “nothing happens." And to a degree, I can see where they are coming from in their assessment. Both films are considerable slow burns, taking their time to establish an aesthetic and a mood over pummeling you with shock value. Many times fans also bemoan that nothing is properly explained and while I disagree that a narrative needs to have clear answers to be appreciated, I find that my appreciation deepens when the veil is lifted ever so slightly. We want to be let in on the fun. While there is so much to take away from They Remain, it unfortunately trips on its own ambition leaving us frustrated rather than enamored in this genre blending mystery directed by Philip Gelatt. Adapted from the short story “--30--” by Laird Barron, THEY REMAIN begins with a quote from HP Lovecraft: “Wise men have interpreted dreams, and the gods have laughed.” I’ve always construed this as the gods laughing that man can never truly understand their dreams. But attached to a film that is so steeped in dreamy logic and visuals, the laughter in this quote takes on a new meaning. What if the God’s are ruefully laughing? As if to say “Psssssh! There was never any meaning!”
Keith (The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper) and Jessica (Westworld’s Rebecca Henderson) are two scientists tasked with carrying out an investigation of the flora and fauna at the site of a “Thrill Kill” cult’s ritualistic murder. “A family” as Jessica describes them to Keith. Marooned in an expanse of forest, a mobile lab made of geodesic domes as their campsite, they scan video footage and scout the nearby land in hopes of discovering some anomaly to explain the changing behavior of the local animals and insects. They slowly, and I mean slowly, discover that not only is something affecting their equipment, but that a CSI squad had been positioned at their base camp previously...and they all went insane. And wouldn’t you know it, Keith is now having terrifying nightmares and Jessica is hearing voices whispering to her in the dark!
There’s quite a lot to like in They Remain. The premise alone is solid gold, a mixture of hard science fiction and cult folk horror. Did the horrible murders the cult committed make some impact on nature, or possibly did the rural surroundings drive this “family” to murder? And if so, how can that be quantified? This is the type of out of the box thinking that we so desperately crave in our genre pictures. This alone is deserving of our attention. The problem that THEY REMAIN has though is keeping that attention without making us wonder, with such a strong unique premise, how come it feels like we’ve seen this all before? Barron and Gelatt leave breadcrumbs of intrigue all throughout there lush forest, but never fully follow through with the promise of discovery. When Keith is scouting he discovers a mysterious hole that he sets up a camera to monitor. Great! If you’ve seen Lew Lehman’s The Pit, you know only good things can come from a mysterious hole in the forest. But the payoff is just one of many missed opportunities that are mired in so much ambiguity and dream logic that deflates our experience, rather than enhance it. It’s as if the man who spoke to the laughing God’s of Lovecraft's earlier quote responded: “Oh, I...I thought you were going somewhere with that.”
But the film itself is undeniably gorgeous. The cinematography by Sean Kirby is as unique as the plot, leaving a lot of the action meticulously at the edges of the frame, letting the surrounding forest dwarf our two leads. William Jackson Harper, who is pitch perfect as the neurotic Chidi in the can’t-be-overstated-how-good-it-really-is comedy The Good Place, elevates every scene he is in, and luckily he almost never leaves the screen. One of the traps many actors fall into, especially those without the training that Harper has, is simply not listening. It’s the old actor joke: “Blah blah blah MY LINE blah blah blah MY LINE.” But not Harper, who’s active listening and responding sets him apart from his co-star Henderson, who’s monointonation clashes with the madness in the third act.
Two handers, which this film ultimately is, are difficult because if both of the actors aren’t as equally engaging to the audience, it can ruin the characters dynamic. The problem is, with Barron and Gelatts script, I’m not too sure what that dynamic is. Is it a reinforcement and detachment from traditional gender roles with Keith scouting in the woods with his rifle while Jessica stays at the base testing samples? Is Jessica supposed to feel cold and calculated, clearly affected by a broken relationship with her family driving her to succeed? How can an actor honestly play an intention or desire, if that intention is muddied in uncertainty from the writers?
Though with all of it’s faults, They Remain should be considered a triumphant. How many films out there can have hard sci-fi premise with riff’s of early Wes Craven, ultimately drawing from the well of curiosity that is Charles Manson and Helter Skelter? Is this cosmic mash up of cult horror a mess of good ideas? Yes, but a mess nonetheless.