By: Hawk Ripjaw (Three Beers) –
They Remain, based on the short story 30 by Laird Barron, finds two scientists Keith and Jessica (William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson) dispatched by a mysterious organization to a site hosted by a murder cult years ago. Now that most of the fervor has blown over, Keith and Jessica are exploring the hypothesis that something sinister in the environment drives its inhabitants mad. It may have contributed to the activities of the cult. By day, Keith goes out into the forest to explore while Jessica stays at the tent doing research. Slowly, Keith starts to notice increasingly unsettling signs of the cult’s presence in the area and finds himself getting more paranoid, both of the mission and of Jessica.
They Remain is one of the most creatively and artfully shot films of the year so far. Writer/director Philip Gelatt and cinematographer Sean Kirby have infused their story with creative use of space and depth, creepy establishing shots and some great camera techniques, including some memorably clever use of rack focus (focus slowly switched between foreground and background in the same unbroken shot). Frequent perspective shots of the security cameras, as well as a reliance on medium and long shots outdoors, train viewers to watch the background. These visual techniques build tension and make the environment an immediately untrustworthy antagonist. The music and sound design, often thrumming and pulsing through Keith’s wilderness missions, create a sense of unease in the early scenes.
The film also slowly builds mistrust by way of the unreliable narrator—Keith’s apparent descent into madness, and the film’s focus on him, creates an apparent non-linear plot progression. Sudden gaps in time and leaps in setting are bridged by dialogue that appears to match up. Elsewhere, voices aren’t immediately diegetic. It’s a wonderfully disorienting feeling elevated by the contained claustrophobic setting and solitary pair of main characters.
The slow burn of They Remain’s narrative is initially compelling, but the early plot and character development is meager, bordering on stingy. It is evident that this is a short story stretched into a feature film, as the pacing leaves too much negative space between the character moments and the discoveries Keith and Jessica make inside and outside the tent. It’s not until about the halfway mark where tangible unease begins to set in. The movie’s tendency to withhold information becomes not only sensible, but intriguing and satisfying. Until then, however, it’s too aimless to truly take hold and the intermittent sinister moments fizzle out rather than build on each other.
There’s a bizarre, stilted feeling to the dialogue and line readings that never quite feels natural. Ostensibly this is to play into the feeling of unease in the environment, but it doesn’t ever cohere as a thematic device and ends up being distracting. It’s unnatural, certainly—and the argument could again be made that this is to establish a chilly distance between the characters—but it also holds the audience at arm’s length.
Glacial pacing ends up kneecapping the first half of They Remain. It’s difficult to not interpret the film’s unwillingness to show its hand as a general lack of focus or sure-footedness. The characters are too grounded to make their weird line readings feel anything other than misguided, and there’s a lingering feeling that the film is just treading water to stretch out the running time. It’s clear how whatever influenced the cult may be influencing Keith and Jessica, but it doesn’t quite come together as a truly compelling sequence of events.
Yet, this is damn fine technical filmmaking. Shot composition and sound design alone make this worth a look. During these moments, They Remain is an effective atmospheric thriller. The environment is its own character and there’s a consistent tension in waiting for the background to deliver a clue to the story. This mood is not given nearly enough time, and the movie constricts thematic exploration. There’s a fun mystery here, and plenty of tension in the second half, but a feature-length film doesn’t feel justified and it’s hard to ignore how much tighter and more suspenseful a film of half the length could have been.
They Remain (2018) Movie Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every innocuous wilderness shot
Do a Shot: for every subtextual reference to gender roles
Take a Drink: for every nightmare Keith has
Take a Drink: for every time Keith and Jessica are at odds