They Remain, 2018.
Directed by Philip Gelatt.
Starring William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson.
Two scientists who share a romantic history are tasked with investigating unnatural animal behaviour on the site of a Manson Family-style cult’s compound.
One of the most cliché ways to describe a film is “Lovecraftian”. Like using Empire Strikes Back to describe all middle chapters in a trilogy, or Twin Peaks-esque to sell a movie as even a little bit weird, saying a film is Lovecraftian is more often than not just a marketing plot and not an accurate description of the film.
Philip Gelatt’s They Remain is part of the small group of films that actually understand what Lovecraftian means and put it to good use. Gelatt is interested in the slippage between reality and what we perceive as reality, as the film blends the supernatural with the psychological and asks questions whose answers are not easy to get. This is a film that will make some audiences frustrated and angry, but you may also get a keen desire to re-watch the entire thing to find hidden answers. Whether or not you find them isn’t the point, but the fact that you are left wanting more is a credit to They Remain.
We follow two scientists: loner Keith (William Jackson Harper) and strict by-the-books Jessica (Rebecca Henderson) sent to a small biosphere in the middle of the vast wilderness. They are sent to investigate the cause of some strange wildlife behaviour in the region – which was apparently once occupied by a Charles Manson-esque cult. As days of isolation and research past, and cabin fever sets in, they soon find themselves unable to trust either the wilderness around them, the mysterious company that sent them there, or themselves. Meanwhile the cameras set up all over the area by the researchers may start picking up signals that they are not alone.
Writer/director Philip Gelatt is better known for the film Europa Report, and he knows how to set up atmosphere. They Remain feels big in scope, but also claustrophobic. Cinematographer Sean Kirby’s camera is mostly static, following the characters from afar with clinical precision and limiting camera movement to scenes inside the biosphere. The film uses mostly wide shots of the wilderness, placing the characters in corners of the screen to make them feel small and trapped – specially Keith. This makes the eerie atmosphere more intense, because you are always expecting something to come out of the vast forest surrounding our characters.
A film with only two characters must rely a lot on its actors and its script, and the actors are more than up to the task. William Jackson Harper does a very different role than we are used to from The Good Place. Discussions of ethics give way to dread and paranoia, as Keith starts having a lot of bizarre visions of blood and violence, which start affecting his relationship with Jessica. While Rebecca Henderson doesn’t have as big a role as Harper, she is the voice of reason in They Remain.
Unfortunately, the script isn’t as good as its characters. The fear of the unknown and feeling of isolation from the first act begins to be very repetitive in the second half of the film. The routine is: Keith leaves the biosphere to check the cameras surrounding the area, has some strange visions, acts weird, goes home, repeat. This is when the slow pace becomes a drag, as you start to lose your patience and just wait for the film to either end or do something interesting.
They Remain is a slow pace film that walks between horror and sci-fi effortlessly, and while the script becomes very repetitive, strong leads and a feeling of isolation make this a worthy Lovecraftian tale of horror and paranoia.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★