'They Remain': Film Review

A moody but slow-moving chiller.
3/2/2018

William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson play researchers studying an abandoned cult site in Philip Gelatt's psychodrama.

Two researchers on a remote three-month assignment go stir crazy — or do they? — in Philip Gelatt's They Remain, starring William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson. Despite a formal setup recalling several sci-fi thrillers, the film (based on a novella by Laird Barron) refuses to confirm that it takes place in such a world, instead forcing us to guess, right up to the final shot, whether its action is all in the minds of its protagonists. A slow burn often works in creep-outs such as this, but here the pacing is a deficit, despite an especially good performance by Harper (of NBC's The Good Place) as the worker whose partner may be turning against him. Gelatt's follow-up to his 2011 debut The Bleeding House, the pic will likely earn him more cautious respect than real support.

Harper and Henderson play Keith and Jessica, employees of an unnamed but clearly powerful corporation. Early chitchat refers to their recruitment, in which young hires were told they'd be part of a "new gold rush" — the nature of this boom remains unexplained, but we suspect it has something to do with a search for new ways to exploit biological elements in plant or animal life. In their search for such materials, Keith will canvass the surrounding woods for samples, while Jessica stays in the team's futuristic tent compound to analyze them.

Keith sets an array of motion- and heat-activated cameras through the woods, and is troubled in early days to find them malfunctioning. They lose connection to his base station; they activate when there's seemingly nothing to film. Then they record a feral-looking group of humans — but only in Keith's dreams.

Keith has cause for nightmares: This vast forest property was, some time back, home to an infamous cult that held at least one mass murder, the "Pleasant View Massacre," before its leaders were arrested. Keith isn't terribly interested in the story, but Jessica, presented as an obsessive about her work, consumed all the news reports about The Family in her youth. Sitting beside their campfire with a bottle of whiskey, she gives the impression of someone who has taken her interests a little too strongly to heart.

The bulk of the film watches from Keith's perspective as Jessica shows signs of isolation-provoked paranoia. She hears knocks on the tent when he's not there; she finds a hive of bees she thinks behaves unnaturally. Henderson's affectlessness is clearly in sync with Gelatt's effort to develop a simmering eerie discomfort, but there's not quite enough going on for that to take root. Much more effective in this department is Tom Keohane's throbbing score.

Whether the site is haunted by nefarious biological agents, the paranormal, or plain-old boredom, whatever's bugging Jessica eventually infects Keith as well. Dreams or visions of the land's previous inhabitants grow more explicit, and encounters with a dog provoke more anxiety than they probably should. Then there's that little animal-sized cave where Keith has placed a camera...

There's action of a sort at the climax, but Gelatt's buildup to and staging of it underwhelms. Moments that hint at a psychedelic revelation to come never add up to much. Only in the last scene does the film seem to make good on the promise of its title. Here, a chilling effect is almost guaranteed by the scene's location and ingredients. But that's a fairly small reward for the slow-moving trip we've taken to get here.

Production company: Reno Productions
Distributor: Paladin
Cast: William Jackson Harper, Rebecca Henderson
Director-screenwriter: Philip Gelatt
Producers: Will Battersby, Philip Gelatt, Linus Hume
Executive producers: Peter Askin, Clara Gelatt, Jonathan Gelatt
Director of photography: Sean Kriby
Production designers: Amorino Bortolin, Rayna Savrosa
Costume designer: Evren Catlin
Editor: Tom Bayne
Composer: Tom Keohane

100 minutes

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