film review by: Julia Seel
Jessica (Rebecca Henderson) and Keith (William Jackson Harper) are sent to a property acquired by an un-named company. The property was previously inhabited by a cult who, in expected cult fashion, killed a number of vulnerable persons. Jessica and Keith observe the property for a few months and report back on unusual animal behavior so the company can determine whether or not the property is habitable. While observing the isolated land the characters become increasingly secretive and paranoid, competing for data and periodically bursting into quasi-professional fights.
First and foremost, the sound design in They Remain is consistently gorgeous. A close recording of memory chips and cameras clipping together, fabric moving, shoes on leaves keeps the viewer tightly locked in on Keith’s movements. This personal sound is mixed with an enhancing soundtrack. The soundtrack is built from variations on a slow, minimal rhythm a la Jaws. Made of klaxons, drums, occasional chanting, and digital fades, the variations keep the viewer moving with the movie while alert for minute changes.
Keith is the protagonist. Jessica is the second-most shown character, playing somewhat of an obsessive foil to Keith’s stoicism. Keith and Jessica themselves are torn between “here we are, chasing the work”, and the paranoid isolation that defines their interactions. Keith cries in the woods and has outbursts of anger, but doesn’t confront Jessica in her lies. Jessica attempts secrecy and manipulation, but she acts against her desire to include Keith in her chosen family.
Frustratingly, the compelling shots of cult members and warped environments are at odds with the plot. I thought the first set was happening to Keith – but no, he cuts to black and wakes up somewhere else with no affect. Perhaps they’re memories of the earth – but why is Jessica in them? Maybe Jessica is hallucinating – but she isn’t the main character, nor do some of these events happen within the timeline of the plot. As a Lovecraft scholar, I am familiar with and I enjoy the horror of the unknown and the unknowable. I know, however, that when faced with the unknowable a character must have a reaction and this reaction will advance the plot. When the ‘why’ is unknowable, the plot carries the story or there will be no story. Since Keith never reacts, the plot never advances between the first twenty minutes and the last ten.
If you enjoyed A Cure for Wellness or you’re looking for a horror film to watch critically, I recommend They Remain.
THEY REMAIN is in theaters now.
Follow on social media: @theyremain