They Remain is a fine example of a film that nearly succeeds at being better than it is. Only touting two billed actors, William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson (as simply Keith and Jessica), the acting is nonetheless superb. Combine the thespian superiority with striking visuals and masterful cinematography that carry continuity throughout the film, and you’ve got the making for a wonderful piece of work. The premise is intriguing and the tension evolves naturally in a way that plays on every past horror film or thriller that you’ve ever seen, utilizes expectations based off experience, and creates dramatic tension that should serve the film wonderfully. Until it doesn’t.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the line someone thought it necessary to forgo subtlety and craft for blatant cliches and hackneyed concepts of how to show without telling. In the process of trying to force-feed us ‘what cults do’, the strength of the writing suffers as we’re left unable to draw nearly any conclusions of any resonance whatsoever. This is saved, to a minor extent, by one bit of of writing that’s above and beyond the rest.
Director: Philip Gelatt
Release Date: March 2, 2018
Visually, They Remain is stunning, for 90% of its implementation. This is saying something as it looks like production consisted of finding a field and some woods, and shooting in them for a couple of days. I suspect the film’s production budget to be surprisingly low. It just has that feel. While shots are elegant, they’re not technically complex in ways that would drive up costs. Special effects are non existent in a way that should be refreshing to nearly any audience: they’re just not needed. Yet, in spite of the low budget, the set design is top notch.
When They Remain posits that two biologists have been dropped off in this remote area to study the local flora and fauna, you are immediately transported into this reality. They’re gear seems up to snuff, and the set construction for their ‘base camp’ is phenomenal (and also, of course, visually stimulating). Yes, biologists study lifeforms, but why the game cameras, guns, and security? It turns out they’ve not selected this parcel of wilderness randomly, but rather they’ve been sent their by their mysterious company to study the life in this area because, at one point, a cult was active here and murdered copious amounts of people.
Some of the cultists, the “ones that mattered” were caught and tried, but others escaped and are still at large.
The plot points are teased out through measured conversation between the leads, mostly built around scenes of Keith sojourning through the woods and fields, setting up cameras or checking their memory caches, rifle, ever-present, slung on his shoulder. As conversation continues, and Keith and Jessica discuss human nature and the concept of trust (Keith has little to none for other people), we watch the rifle migrate from shoulder to permanence in Keith’s hands.
So, weird things are happening too. Cameras malfunction. Jessica hears knocking on their door at night. There’s a German Sheperd that stalks Keith in the woods. They uncover a plot of human remains that no one told them of (although clearly their company was aware of its existence).
The impetus behind their being there quickly grows in importance; what exactly are they studying? The emphasis seems to shift from general biology to the science that led the cultists to become murderers (it cannot be emphasized enough that the murdering seems to have been quite extensive).
Are you intrigued? I was, and the suspense is palpable. I actually opted to forgo watching They Remain while alone and instead transplanted myself and laptop to a coffee shop, surrounded by people in broad daylight, for the experience. It has enough chops to warrant this action. And then director Gelatt squanders it, quite inexplicably.
Demonstrating a lack of imagination that flies in the face of the rest of the film’s construction, scenes of cult-like activity are suddenly intercut with our primary narrative action. The film quality changes, suggesting it to be flashbacks, or memories, or archival footage. But whose memories? Who’s watching the footage? We have no idea--there is absolutely no context for it, and the only justification for its existence seems to be the notion that if you talk about a cult in a movie, you’d better show the cult in the movie. Wrong! Jaws is one of the most suspenseful films of all time because of the absence of a giant shark throughout 95% of the movie! It’s the buildup to the reveal, through good storytelling and quality filmmaking that made it a success. They Remain was following suit, taking the brooding isolation present in The Witch and merging it with beautiful shots of nature and one man in nature, creating an amalgam which was, frankly, more enjoyable, until suddenly, it changed course in disappointing fashion.
At some point, Keith begins to suspect his colleague has been less than forthright with him, and at this point, the audience can make large, assumptive jumps in logic and progression and perhaps assume what these scenes of the cult have been. But they would be just that, assumptions, guesses, and supposition, nothing more. Is it necessary to explain everything? No. But when the film could arguably have been even more successful just by omitting these things, then the answer shifts with equal conviction to yes. Justification should emerge. Unfortunately, it doesn’t
As mentioned, there’s one bit of clever writing to come which saves some of these dalliances from being damningly impactful, but it’s too little too late. Another example of a great film gone bad, sadly. Nothing on the actors, or Director of Photography Sean Kirby; they did great work, but poor directorial choices (seeing as he was the writer for the adapted work, too) made something remain, but not the thing we’d hoped for.
Expect no resolutions here, only more questions.