THEY REMAIN [Film Review]: The Music of Erich Yawn…
Disclaimer first and foremost, fellow readers: this was the second straight screener I’d received where the screener link continuously froze and buffered for 5-10 minute intervals every 2 or so minutes. I’d received an advanced copy of an anime I’ll soon be reviewing, and am wildly grateful I’d received an actual physical blu-ray, as streaming links are a hit-or-mostly-miss affair (heaven forbid you connect your laptop via HDMI, and God help you if you try air-playing a streaming copy).
That being said…
In between long buffering sessions, They Remain is an atmospheric, moody, slow burn film that benefits from gorgeous cinematography, and a great, disjointed, unnerving soundtrack. Starring William Jackson Harper as Keith (a far, far cry from his portrayal of Chidi in The Good Place), and Rebecca Henderson as Jessica, the plot revolves around these two characters, contracted by a corporation, as they try to uncover the reasoning behind a suicide cult’s fascination with a certain tract of land. Several unnerving events take place that suggest the very land itself is giving way to unnatural impulses (animals act strangely; mysterious sounds begin being heard, and disturbing, violent hallucinations begin to manifest themselves).
Based on a short story by Laird Barron, Philip Gelatt’s direction sometimes mistakes meandering for depth…which would have been unfortunate if the cinematography weren’t so gorgeous. DP Sean Kirby makes gorgeous use of the outdoors setting, utilizing several Magic Hour scenes, pre-dawn segments with an ethereal dew lifting off of the grass, and remarkable uses of multiple depths of fields. Hopefully Kirby further develops his visual style, and we see more of this remarkable and distinctive look going forward.
Gelatt’s script, however, lacks a bit of punch. We see early on the length of the mission for Keith and Jessica (they are in the field for several months, gathering soil and animal samples for study), but most major developments seem a bit undercooked. Midway through the first act, Jessica accuses Keith of making noises and knocking on the door of their shared living/work quarters (their “tent” is a geodesic dome, essentially), but from her tone, she finds it to be mere annoyance than anything worth worrying about.
Later on, we see Keith asleep in his bed, with Jessica wandering about in the background, and, a scene or two later, she disappears for some time (it appears to be a day or two) before returning with a spiraly artifact (she claims it’s a fossilized bone from some enormous beast). It is unlike anything I had ever see, and they each claim to have never seen anything like this artifact either…but they react with such a detachment that it was hard to get a vibe for the tone. Even upon hearing that a secondary expedition team (with whom we’ve heard Keith speak) went insane and murdered each other, our two main characters think nothing of it.
Knowing the influences of this film (I’ve read about 75-80% of the works of HP Lovecraft, a quote of which opens this film), I could tell what vibe we were intended to get: a slow burn look at madness building, and the futility of trying to understand something that goes beyond human reasoning. Even glimpses and hallucinations of what Keith imagines the mysterious cult which they’re studying offers insight into this theme…but it never fully meshes.
There’s hints here and there of a stranger, more fascinating backstory…or at least one that would (and SHOULD) illicit a more visceral reaction from the viewer. If I hadn’t known beforehand what sort of thematic template this film was using…as well as the themes of Lovecraft’s works…I might not have appreciated this film as much.
Again, this film looks and sounds gorgeous, and I’d watch it again just to soak in the visuals a second time; just not sure if non-fans of weird fiction, and Lovecraft specifically, will hold out til the end. I do hope I’m wrong about that, though.
They Remain releases today, 5/29/2018, on VOD