I’m usually a fan of films with a small, contained cast. This especially tends to work in thrillers and horror films. With fewer characters, they can become more reliably relatable because it is less likely they will be killed off unexpectedly. The focus allows for a better examination of characters and their relationships, usually with an emphasis on tension or complete discord. The inevitable theme of isolation is key to building this tension. And if another character shows up out of the blue, you know something is about to go down.
Based on a short story by Laird Barron, Philip Gelatt’s They Remain is an intriguing two-hander starring William Jackson Harper [The Good Place, Paterson] and Rebecca Henderson [Mistress America, Appropriate Behavior]. It makes sense that They Remain is adapted from a short story, because it has that feeling of a focused idea stretched out to feature length.
That might sound like a criticism but it is more like a half-criticism. At times, They Remain moves a bit too slowly. It might lull you into checking your phone or spacing out in thought before bringing you back in with something unusual. It would likely feel like a fuller experience as a 30-minute short film, though it does do a good job at using its length to consistently build tension. It also makes good use of its strange location, turning a picturesque rural setting unsettling.
Because of this, They Remain has a ceiling. It really is only for genre fans will a bit more patience than the average viewer. Even while it works well for what it is, it probably won’t blow anyone away. That said, They Remain is a good version of what it is -- a small, slow, windy thriller. The film’s two performances are able to carry, while a few moments of shock cut through the ever-present tension.
What it’s about: Keith and Jessica are scientists investigating the site of a former cult compound. They monitor the grounds, chat about the horrific things that happened on the land, study animal behavior, and pass the days away. The isolation begins to take a toll on their psyches and relationship. Their dreams become more vivid and more frightening. The animals in the woods display unusual behavior. Unexplainable things show up on the cameras recording around the grounds. Eventually, the discovery of an artifact mystically leads to a total breakdown of reality.
One of the selling points for me was William Jackson Harper. As a huge fan of The Good Place, I was interested in seeing what Harper could bring to a drama/thriller. It is a bit odd at first, but he actually doesn’t need to stray too far from his usual serious straight-man to fit the tone.
The slow burn drama is occasionally intercut with dream-like, quickly edited visions. They are genuinely spooky and probably when the film is at its best.
The most effective of these scenes is the one that stands out as unique among them -- a look-in at the cult that inhabited the grounds. It is the most graphic and the least cryptic insert. But without any context or dialogue, it still has an off-kilter effect.
With this kind of film you are right to expect an insane ending -- otherwise, was all this build really worth it? Aside from a bit of gruesomeness, They Remain goes for something a little more open-ended, which might be unfulfilling for some. I found the film’s final image incredibly creepy, however, even though it wasn’t completely narratively satisfying.
Director Philip Gelatt has had a brief, albeit interesting, career [most interesting: writing credit on video game Rise of the Tomb Raider]. They Remain might not be big enough to be considered a “break out” but it has all the feeling of a film people will discover once he eventually gets that break out.