The line between reality and madness is a thin one in They Remain, the sophomore effort from director Philip Gelatt (The Bleeding House) that’s a visually striking but ultimately plodding tale of Lovecraftian alienation and isolation.
Keith (William Jackson Harper, miles away from his role as an indecisive philosophy professor on NBC’s The Good Place) and Jessica (Mistress America’s Rebecca Henderson) are two scientists on a mission to find… well, they’re not exactly sure what they’re looking for, but they know it’s out there, somewhere, in the forest where long-forgotten bones keep their secrets, and in the fields that a murderous cult once called home. Their gleaming, hexagonal, hi-tech lab is an affront to the lush greenery that surrounds it, a beacon of scientific understanding and knowledge in a world that’s slowly devolving into something…else. Then Jessica, the more clinical and obsessive of the pair, discovers an artifact of unknown origins, and, as she intones in the film’s opening, “You know how this is going to end.”
Gelatt adapted They Remain from “30,” a short story by horror writer Laird Barron (it was nominated for a Shirley Jackson award when it was first published in 2010) and anchors the slim source material in strong performances from Harper and Henderson. Anyone who’s had a co-worker you have nothing in common with but have to be polite to will recognize the cordial distance between Keith and Jessica. Harper deftly balances Keith’s growing anger and confusion at his increasingly bizarre surroundings, while Henderson grounds her icy obsessiveness with a matter-of-factness that borders on gaslighting. Though the dialogue often borders on the stiff and awkward, the pair manage to find an undercurrent of quiet menace.
That menace, the feeling of being watched by something you can’t quite put your finger on, explores the “weird”; the liminal space between worlds, the boundary where things both terrifying and ancient can cross over, and which author Mark Fisher, in his book The Weird and the Eerie, identifies as being central to the nameless horror of H.P. Lovecraft. Cinematographer Sean Kirby captures the melancholy beauty of the forest in wide static shots and striking compositions that highlight the tiny spaces Keith and Jessica occupy in this world; ants, bees and a roaming dog all get their close-ups in NatGeo-worthy macro photography. One of the film’s most successful elements is the way Kirby uses caves, eyes and doorways as a visual motif to further deepen the uneasy relationship between man and nature, transgressor and native, science and the beyond.
And if you stripped away the story, much of the film could double for a long-lost Boards of Canada music video, especially the hazy flashbacks to a psychedelic reign of terror by the Manson-style cult. Composer Thomas Keohane balances synthetic textures with moody atmosphere to create a score that feels both alien and familiar, a steady pulse in a quickly disintegrating world.
But these things can only do so much to break up the film’s glacial pacing, which too often mistakes slowness for seriousness. Suspense and tension aren’t strictly necessary to this kind of Lovecraftian horror, but even so, the film suffocates under the weight of its own portentousness. A brief bit of shocking violence in the last act functions as a kind of narrative defibrillator before the inevitably vague conclusion, which lets the film linger less as a complete story and more as stark moments of beauty amid madness.
Adrienne McIlvaine (@mizocty) lives in Brooklyn and has written about film and television for Time Warner, Cut Print Film, FilmFish and HelloGiggles. She keeps the ticket stubs of every movie she sees and wishes there were more films like The Wicker Man (not the Nicolas Cage one). She’s also a fierce advocate for going to the movies by yourself, The Counselor and reading the book first.