Synopsis: An artist relocates to the Hudson Valley and begins to suspect that her marriage has a sinister darkness, one that rivals her new home’s history.
Stars: Amanda Seyfried, James Norton, Natalia Dyer, Karen Allen, Rhea Seehorn, Alex Neustaedter, F. Murray Abraham
Directors: Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: You may want to check your calendar a few minutes into the new Netflix thriller Things Heard & Seen because it has the air of an autumn thriller we usually don’t get in the late spring with summer on the horizon. Not that I’m complaining. In the least. Representing the type of paranoid domestic suspense film that used to be perfect popcorn fare for moviegoers, it will likely remind viewers of a certain age of a number of movies from the early 2000’s when tension started to mix with the supernatural. Fun films to spend a rainy afternoon with, they were the early subgenre to fall victim when studios focused more on franchise starters and titles with name recognition.
Thankfully, streaming services have found good success with these modestly budgeted thrillers and have been able to attract a wealth of interesting talent. Some (like May’s The Woman in the Window) have been acquired from their original studio after an intended theatrical release was derailed by the pandemic while others have been produced in-house, and that’s the case for this Netflix film likely to please those searching for an elevated ghost story. In fact, it will remind genre fans of a similar sophisticated blockbuster suspense film, and the comparisons are striking at times and often in the most favorable way possible. To give away the title could be considered a spoiler (only slightly) so I’ll make you work for it. It came out in 2000. It’s directed by an Oscar winner that remade a Roald Dahl film in 2020 and stars two bona fide A-Listers, one who is soon to reprise a famous role for the fifth time and the other who made a splashy film debut 40 years ago in the sequel to the then-biggest movie musical of all time.
In Things Heard & Seen, Catherine Claire (Amanda Seyfried, Scoob!) has her dream job in NYC restoring art while her husband George (James Norton, Little Women) works on his dissertation. She leaves all that behind when George completes his thesis and lands a job at a small college in upstate New York where they soon move with their young daughter. The quaint farmhouse George has found for them to live has potential and with its proximity to his work it appears to be perfect. Ah, but we all know that nothing is ever ideal for long and soon ghostly apparitions are appearing to Catherine who doesn’t recognize what they signal at first but eventually realizes they are pointing her toward an evil that exists in her new home and possibly to one that has been with her all along.
The film hits the expected beats with a satisfying timbre. There’s the shadowy figure standing in a doorway as someone walks by. A sudden movement of a piece of furniture is helped to an additional jolt by the cinematographer jerking the camera suddenly toward the action. More than that, though, is the uneasiness we feel from the real-life insidiousness Catherine uncovers in her own world. Struggling with an eating disorder (we aren’t five minutes into the film before we see her bulimia in action) gives Catherine her own demons to deal with, but they are nothing when held up against the history of the farmhouse or the truth about the families that have lived there before.
Adapted with some liberty by writer/directors Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini (Girl Most Likely) from Elizabeth Brundage’s moody and complex 2016 novel, All Things Cease to Appear, the re-titled Things Heard & Seen makes some wise choices in structure for a new medium. Tightening up the plot by liberally holding back information from the viewer (a choice that may frustrate some the more that is revealed), Springer Berman and Pulcini convincingly keep the suspense building to a frenzy and that’s when it gets a little harder to talk about. It’s not that the final act doesn’t live up to a rather energizing 90 minutes or so, it’s that the last half hour feels less constructed with care than what has come before. The movie doesn’t leave off where the book does so perhaps this was a compromise on the part of the directors, but it will definitely prove to be divisive.
What keeps the movie from idling in low gear is Seyfried’s invested performance as the frustrated wife and mother trying to keep herself together when largely left to her own devices. She’s been relocated to the middle of nowhere with no friends and no job and on top of that has to contend with hidden secrets that emerge out of the woodwork. Seyfried takes all of this in stride and never lets the histrionics of the role get the better of her. I mean, with Norton playing George as this pompous, self-important knob of a man I wondered why Catherine didn’t just knock his block off but it clearly means both actors are doing the work convincingly. Speaking of Norton, his role is every bit as difficult to wend through as Seyfried’s – the film sets him up from the start for audiences to think of him one way and he leans into that, gradually at first and then full throttle by the end. It was a pleasure seeing Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham (Lady and the Tramp) show up as the chair of the department at George’s college and his belief in the teachings of a scholar who wrote on heaven and hell will play a key piece in connecting with the Claire family. I also really enjoyed Rhea Seehorn’s feisty role as a busybody teacher acquaintance of George that pals up with Catherine, only to find herself snooping up the wrong tree.
While Springer Berman and Pulcini are good with a number of details throughout the film that find payoffs running the the gamut from just decent to incredibly satisfying, there are unfortunately some threads that never get picked up or explored to their full extent. I can’t help but wonder if the movie wasn’t trimmed a bit for time and pace because while it never drags there are spaces where it feels as if passages were excised. Slowing things down isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you have the strong material to keep audiences on the edge of their seat. The swerve of the change is fairly swift and jarring, out of synch with the relative ease the rest of the production employed. Several characters get left on the wayside, only to appear after an hour or more’s absence with barely an explanation not just to why we haven’t seen them in so long but how it is they haven’t even been mentioned.
Having already spent some time in a haunted house last year with You Should Have Never Left, Seyfried’s second stay is far superior entertainment with a more cohesive narrative and characters you want to invest additional time with. Things Heard & Seen is handsomely made and with its nice attention to period detail has that era down but not done to death. Ratcheting up twists and turns exponentially as it sails toward its conclusion, that ending is going to be a telling factor in the reactions people have so my advice would be to skip what you may hear about the end and judge the film on its own merits and not it’s ever-so-slightly amorphous final fifteen minutes.