With only one other directorial credit under his belt, writer/director Philip Gelatt helms the full feature adaptation of Laird Barron’s Lovecraftian short story —30– under the name They Remain. Tracking the complex relationship between two scientists working in a remote encampment, They Remain is the creepiest film of 2018 thus far, largely due to cinematographer Sean Kirby whose deft touch infuses every frame with malicious dread. While the title may put audiences onto the type of narrative this psychological thriller will follow, Gelatt’s execution is so masterful, it will put you on the literal edge of your seat.
An enigmatic corporation sends two scientists, Keith (William Jackson Harper) and Jessica (Rebecca Henderson), to research the land upon which a cult, known for various deviant acts, used to reside. Their task is to examine everything – from the land to the animal life – to quantify why so many strange events occurred on this land. Thus far, no one’s been able to determine the pathology – psychological, biological, or supernatural – to explain the generations of violence perpetrated on this acreage but Jessica’s obsessively determined to succeed. In the isolation of their three-month expedition in the wilderness, Keith and Jessica’s sanity is challenged as they begin to hear voices in the dark and see indistinct figures in the distance. Is it just in their heads or is something waiting out in the woods for them?
They Remain is one of those tricky films to discuss. A film should always be experienced as blindly as possible, yet it’s imperative for audiences to be aware of the ride they’re about to endure. And endure it you will. From the jump, Gelatt’s intent is obvious – we, the audience, are about to bear witness to a hypnotic fever dream in which man’s attempts to understand nature put them at odds, forcing man to become naturalistic to survive. Or perhaps not. It’s really hard to say what’s real and what’s not because everything Gelatt does is intended to disquiet the audience. Beautiful establishing shots are counter-acted by indistinct figures writhing in the distance. Tracking shots constantly keep the actors off-center, occasionally listing slowly away from them to ensure that the audience is unable to distinguish where they should focus: on the action or the surroundings. Other times the camera may slowly tilt, the action displayed at near-45 degrees, which caused several instances of subconscious slanting on the part of this reviewer. Scenes displaying nature’s sublime beauty are suddenly altered through tint and complexion. These jarring visual transitions, however, aren’t limited to a gorgeous sunset turning blood red as the progression of time becomes indistinct through the utilization of hard cuts. Without something to cling to within the narrative, much like the characters in the story, time becomes meaningless to the audience as they experience the characters slowly lose their grips. Truly, the entirety of They Remain – cinematography, sound, and editing – is an onslaught of the senses.
But what descent into madness would be as believable without the compelling characters to carry it. As much as They Remain is an exploration of man’s relationship with nature, it’s little surprise that the film focuses on the relationship between one man, Keith, and one woman, Jessica. Each are skilled in their respective fields – he’s the hunter/tracker tasked with going into the field to set up the surveillance equipment and it’s her job to analyze the findings – yet they don’t trust each other. Their time is largely spent working, with only a few moments in which Keith and Jessica let their guard down to engage each other with truths. Smartly, this is done beside a fire under the night sky as swigs of alcohol are shared between them. The night is a period when humanity is most vulnerable, so utilizing these moments for the characters to open up is wise. When the sun comes up, however, the guards return and the audience is left wondering if either of them are being their authentic selves. It’s as much the performances by Harper and Henderson as it is the composition of the scenes that make the experience of They Remain so compelling. There’s not a wasted moment from either actor in any scene we observe. No hint of insincerity, whatsoever. So when the title of the film is revealed, I’m still not sure it’s a concrete divulgement.
For as much as They Remain makes clear, there’s still so much of it that’s deliciously questionable. In many respects, recent films like Woodshock – which explored nature’s restorative properties – and It Comes At Night – which explored the dangerous uncertainty of nature – already covered much of the ground Gelatt presents in his adaptation of Barron’s story. Yet Gelatt does it so much better than they do in the way he sustains the fever dream state for the duration of the film. Nature, we learn, is presented as the hunter and the scientists are, not prey, but visitors who offer a proverbial cycle of renewal from the dull quiet. The entire experience of They Remain is truly relentless, a slow burn psychological thriller in the truest sense, making you question everything you’ve seen as nothing more than an elaborate illusion. Or, again, perhaps not.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.