Far from the consistent critical glory of Sundance contemporaries like Kelly Reichardt and Debra Granik — or even the sporadic critical glory of a Lisa Cholodenko or an Ira Sachs — and not to be confused with more marketable writing-directing duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have forged one of the most perplexing career paths in American independent film.
In the nearly two decades since their 2003 breakout American Splendor, nothing they’ve made has come close to delivering on that debut’s prankish promise. Efforts have included a high-profile misfire (The Nanny Diaries); a fitfully amusing comedy starring Kristen Wiig in hot-mess mode (Girl Most Likely); a torturous exercise in tweeness (The Extra Man); and a slight adaptation of an acclaimed coming-of-age novel (Ten Thousand Saints).
Instead of cultivating the visual wit and scruffy emotional intricacy that made American Splendor such a treat, Berman and Pulcini have drifted toward a kind of shrug-worthy, middlebrow indie-ish proficiency, crafting stories of oddballs and outsiders but smoothing the rougher edges and taming the messiness into tastefully offbeat packages. Even their stronger outings — Cinema Verite, a 2011 HBO drama about the making of PBS’ docu/reality series An American Family, for example — leave an impression of surfaces nimbly skimmed rather than depths plumbed. The pacing, control of tone and command over their star-strewn casts vary from film to film, but most of Berman and Pulcini’s work has been stuck on that frustrating spectrum of fine.
I wish I could say they break the blah streak in their Netflix neo-Gothic Things Heard & Seen, which finds the pair tackling a different genre — supernatural horror — with customary professionalism but no discernible spark of passion or purpose. An adaptation of Elizabeth Brundage’s 2016 novel All Things Cease to Appear, the 1980-set film follows a couple of art historians (Amanda Seyfried and James Norton) from Manhattan to the Hudson Valley, where both their marriage and the fixer-upper they purchase start showing signs of … dysfunction. It’s the latest in the long line of movies about women unraveled by sinister forces unseen and very much seen, in the form of caddish, gaslighting husbands (from classics like, duh, Gaslight and Rosemary’s Baby to less distinguished examples like What Lies Beneath, mother! and Seyfried’s own recent You Should Have Left).
Things Heard & Seen is highly watchable, with an effective 40 minutes or so of character-driven buildup grounded in Seyfried’s sympathetic performance. But Berman and Pulcini’s failure to generate suspense becomes problematic during a second half that settles into standard psycho-spouse thriller rhythms with some half-assed ghost-story and feminist elements tossed in. It’s an odd match of a screenplay (adapted by Berman and Pulcini) that’s too obvious, telegraphing rather than teasing out its twists, and direction that’s overly timid; one gets the sense that the filmmakers are checking off genre tropes and tricks from a list instead of finding ways to invest them with fresh chills or shivers.
The movie opens on a note of auspicious creepiness. A man (Norton) pulls into the garage of a ramshackle rural home only to have drops of blood splatter the windshield — and then, when he steps out of the car, his face. He looks up, realizing that the crimson leak is coming from the ceiling. A few shots later, he’s running toward the camera with a little girl in his arms.
We flash back six months to a party hosted by the man, George Claire, and his wife, Catherine (Seyfried), at their New York City apartment. Golden boy academic George has accepted a teaching position at a liberal arts college upstate, where the two will relocate with young daughter Franny (Ana Sophia Heger). Catherine is giving up her job restoring religious murals, which she seems OK with — though a glimpse of her purging the nibble of cake she’s just allowed herself hints at a darkness beneath her placid domestic glow.
George picks out a run-down farmhouse to buy — the always-welcome Karen Allen plays the friendly local real estate agent — and spends his days on campus while Catherine busies herself with renovations. Each is also drawn to a younger object of desire: Catherine bonds with hunky handyman Eddie (Alex Neustaedter), who, in one of the film’s few truly arresting images, is first seen from behind, staring at the house alongside younger brother Cole (Jack Gore); George flirts shamelessly with Eddie’s alluring friend Willis (Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer). The uneasy dynamic between the transplants and the townies (or the “rich horsey weekenders” and the “full-time rednecks,” as Catherine’s friend quips) is one of several provocative themes the filmmakers nod at without pursuing.
Before long, things are going bump in the night — or, in this case, lights in the house are flickering, radios switching on and off, and a smell of gas wafting up from the basement into the bedroom. Catherine finds a bizarrely annotated book and an abandoned wedding ring. Townspeople whisper when she discloses her new address. And what’s the deal with the old woman who periodically pops up in the corner of the frame, a presence only slightly spookier than the oversized crow that comes crashing through a window one day?
Meanwhile, Catherine starts turning away from dismissive, distracted George, and toward his hip, self-confident colleague Justine (Rhea Seehorn, deliciously sly). Justine’s sisterly encouragement of Catherine’s autonomy is far more interesting than a subplot revolving around George’s department head (F. Murray Abraham, being very F. Murray Abraham), who natters away incessantly about Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.
Springer and Berman juggle the various strands ably, but struggle to overcome the screenplay’s structural problems — namely, a scarcity of tension and the absence of a sharp perspective. Things Heard & Seen shows its hand early: It’s clear who the villain is, and any doubts we have about Catherine’s mental and emotional state are dispelled less than an hour in, when someone confirms that, yes indeed, the house is haunted. As a result, we spend the remainder of the movie waiting for the inevitable to transpire.
The writer-directors might have juiced things up by sticking closer to Catherine — and in doing so, allowing some dread and mystery to ripen around George. Seyfried is certainly up to the task. The actress doesn’t need to overplay Catherine’s tremulousness or contort her face into a Munch-like mask of terror; with those wide, anxious eyes, she’s a natural scream queen. Unfortunately, the film often ditches Catherine to tag along with George on his weaselly exploits. And Norton (Happy Valley, Little Women), as a man who, after years of coasting on good looks and glib charm, finds his narcissism catching up with him, gives away too much too soon; George is so transparently sketchy he’s never menacing.
Berman and Pulcini also seem conspicuously uninterested in frightening us, or even making us squirm. Their refusal to rely on cheap jump scares or shock cuts is admirable in theory, but the horror imagery here feels perfunctory and the moments meant to unnerve come and go with little flair or emphasis. (Nothing in the film approaches the vivid nightmarishness of the apparitions in Netflix’s 2018 The Haunting of Hill House, for instance.) Things Heard & Seen flows, but never pauses to take pleasure in jolting us, jangling our nerves or toying with our expectations.
That’s a shame because as a tale of a woman waking up to the fact that her man is a grade-A a—hole, the movie has glimmers of timely fascination. In one of the strongest scenes, as Catherine and a stoned George drive home from a dinner, she looks on aghast as he puts on a master class in toxic masculinity — speeding just to freak her out, groping her breast, taunting her. Catherine’s repressed resentments and queasily mounting revulsion toward her husband are a compelling core that the film too frequently neglects. Things Heard & Seen shows us a marriage in which mistrust creeps in to fill the void left by a lack of love — a horror we hear and see, all right, but never feel in our bones.
Production companies: Likely Story
Directors: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
Writers: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (adapted from the novel by Elizabeth Brundage)
Cast: Amanda Seyfried, James Norton, Natalia Dyer, Alex Neustaedter, Rhea Seehorn, Michael O’Keefe, Karen Allen, Jack Gore and F. Murray Abraham, James Urbaniak, Ana Sophia Heger
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Stefanie Azpiazu, Peter Cron, Julie Cohen
Executive producers: Peter Pastorelli, Stephen Lippross, Robert Pulcini, Shari Springer Berman
Director of photography: Larry Smith
Editors: Louise Ford, Andrew Mondshein
Production designer: Lester Cohen
Music: Peter Raeburn
Costume designer: April Napier
Casting: Jeanne McCarthy, Rori Bergman