I realized, when watching this, that there is a distinct subgenre of horror film where the horror is a metaphor for depression. The Babadook and Lights Out are two other relatively recent popular films where this is true—I mean, overtly true, where the filmmakers have just openly said, “Yes, this is a metaphor for depression.” (Certainly the trope in film goes back to the German expressionists, and we hardly need mention Edgar Allan Poe.) The ending of Lights Out caused some controversy because if you’re going to be very thorough—that is, following through on the metaphor and mapping it back to real world behavior—it’s not exactly a great message to send depressed people. That’s just peanuts compared to this movie’s ending, however.
A funny thing happens, though, when you take the abstract concept of depression and turn it into an external force that can be confronted: It becomes interesting to watch and strangely hopeful. (Cf. when you turn it into an external force that will destroy everything, which becomes boring and nihilistic).
We went in completely blind to this movie and I think its little reveals and twists are important to enjoying the film, so I’m going to speak in broad generalities: Basically, the film is about recently widowed Beth (Rebecca Hall), and how the death of her husband Owen (Evan Jongkeit) undermines everything she thought about not just her life, but life in general. She’s a school teacher lives in a lovely custom-built house deep in the woods on a lake. She’s got a friend (Sarah Goldberg) and a friendly neighbor (Vondie Curtis-Hall, whom you’ll all remember as the star of “Cop Rock”) but she’s mostly just pissed off and wants to be alone.
Now, this is an interesting choice. Most movies play up the sympathy angle for young widows but Beth has a got a chip on her shoulder a mile wide, bordering on the unlikable even given her very recent tragic loss. There are two layers two this: The first and most obvious being the death of her husband; the second being that she was actually always a kind of difficult person and it was her husband who kept her more balanced. She is dark and atheistic and nihilistic and, really, one gets the sense that it was her relationship to her husband on which she grounded herself.
And the movie is a process of undermining that entire relationship while also challenging her worldview as she is most decidedly haunted.
Director David Bruckner (Southbound, The Ritual) takes us down a rabbit-hole where we are free—some might say encouraged—to speculate on the base nature of Owen’s secret life. He takes us far enough down to where I was pretty sure there was no getting out. That said, the ending worked for me, though it does not necessarily bear close scrutiny and good lord, you don’t want to go too heavy on the “solutions for depression” metaphor.
This movie walks a fine line in a lot of ways. I’ve mentioned that the lead character is borderline unlikable, but there is a lot of “and then she wakes up” which is often just a lazy, sloppy device for getting out of a mess created by the urge to create funhouse horror, but it’s actually developed here in an interesting and even deep way. There are a few jump scares but not too many and, this is an odd thing, they’re more directed toward Beth than they are toward the audience. That is to say, I don’t think the director was trying to get us to jump out of our seats, but to alarm and disturb the main character, making her more sympathetic and growing the horror from a sense of her fate rather than, e.g., “oh my god that loud noise was so scary ha ha it was just a cat”.
Another line, which it actually treads really well, is the “if the ghost is someone you loved, why is it scary?” line. And the character development, and relationship development is trickled out in a way that you really, really want what the main character wants—for the things that she believed were true to be true.
The acting is solid. This is basically the Rebecca Hall show and she’s up for it. I said to the Boy, “Look, it’s Rebecca Hall!” and he said, “Who [tf] is that?” and I said, “I don’t know, but she’s billed over the title!” We’ve seen Ms. Hall in about a million things over the past 15 years (The Prestige, Frost/Nixon, The Town, Everything Must Go, and The BFG, just for example) but this is the first time I can recall seeing her headline a film, and it’s a genuinely great performance of a difficult role.
The music is just right, the cinematography has some brilliant moments, and a low-key, satisfying ending was preferred over, say, the house exploding (thank you Steven Spielberg). We were pleasantly surprised, as moviegoing has just been a series of “let’s see something that we won’t absolutely hate” these days (cf. Cryptozoo).
If you’re up for an atmospheric, non-gory haunted house-type story, you could do worse.