Director: Karen Moncrieff
Writer: Rebecca Sonnenshine
Producer: Jason Blum, John Miranda
Stars: Lee Pace, Carrie Coon, Sander Thomas, Amy Smart, Ana Ortiz, Ray Baker, Cliff Chamberlain, Molly Hagan, Christina Vidal
Strange supernatural events reunite a divorced couple seven years after the tragic death of their five-year-old son.
“The Keeping Hours” lathers on about 40 coats of saccharine sentimentality across its 90-minute runtime. Roughly 10 of those coats are applied in just the first five minutes.
Mark, Elizabeth, and their five-year-old son Jacob are locked in a no-holds-barred contest for who can have the most interminably adorable introduction. It’s wedding day for the duo who has been together eight years. Before donning his bowtie to be dad’s best man, Jacob engages in a goofy game of hide-and-seek where father and son get to go “grrr!” and “hahaha!” as they wrestle in playfully loving fashion. Mark and Elizabeth are also the kind of couple prone to dry heaving at prim and proper tradition. Naturally then, their nuptials feature comedic cries for cake, plenty of giggling from guests, and personalized vows that include eating a life-saver as an inside joke. Cuteness continues unabated right up through slow dancing at the reception with their sleeping child shouldered between them.
With this much sweetness giving every tooth a cavity, the setup predictably begs for the rug to be ripped out from under it. That’s what happens when an offscreen tragedy takes Jacob’s life, toppling dominos that pull Mark and Elizabeth apart.
“The Keeping Hours” picks up six years after the couple’s divorce. Elizabeth has a new husband, new children, and a new book about coping with loss. Mark remains immersed in his own work, until he hears that the tenants renting his former family’s former home wrecked the place and disappeared.
Mark stops by the empty house once shared with Elizabeth and Jacob to discover it isn’t unoccupied at all. Mark cannot touch his son without experiencing intense physical pain, yet Jacob is inexplicably there, not exactly in the flesh, yet not quite as an ethereal phantom either. Mark cannot fathom how it happened. All he knows for now is that the boy wants his mother.
It takes some convincing given the gap grown between them, but Elizabeth soon has the same unbelievable encounter. In one of Rebecca Sonnenshine’s script’s smartest moves, “The Keeping Hours” doesn’t waste time with “what’s going on?” exposition. By the 30-minute mark, both parents have faced an unmistakably vivid vision of their dead son. With unnecessary obstacles out of the way, the story then freely explores the trio’s relationship as Mark and Elizabeth endeavor to uncover what Jacob wants, and why he brought them back together.
“The Keeping Hours” is an unusually atypical ghost story. In fact, its supernatural element only slimly qualifies it as a ghost story at all.
Despite Blumhouse’s involvement and its genre billing on IMDb, it’s a misnomer to identify the movie as “horror.” This isn’t even a debatable circumstance such as when audiences argue over how to classify “It” (review here) or “Hereditary” (review here). I’ll go further by adding that “The Keeping Hours” isn’t a thriller either. A love story beats the film’s heart, although the rekindled romance between Mark and Elizabeth stands on ethically iffy grounds.
In the only scene featuring Elizabeth’s new husband Smith, possibly the last name she oddly refers to him by, the rightfully angry spouse confronts Elizabeth for lying to him about where she has been going every day. Of course, Smith would never believe Elizabeth has been spending that time with her dead son. Yet this encounter also awkwardly occurs the morning after Elizabeth finally gets intimate again with Mark.
In the single scene shared with one of her two stepdaughters, Elizabeth smilingly shows the young girl a photo album featuring her first wedding with Mark. Once again, questionably disrespecting her current family to reminisce about the previous one seems an odd way to portray a supposedly sympathetic person.
Back to Blumhouse, their most noticeable fingerprints include signs of cut content, a hallmark of their DTV releases heavily edited for streamlined simplicity, e.g. “Stephanie” (review here). Mark has a dad with dementia he visits twice as well as a boss who mildly chides him once. Amy Smart appears in a role with next to nothing to do other than offer maternal motivation for why another boy lives next door. Aside from being pushed into the plot for thematic parallels, such inclusions are of arguable value in their limited incarnations.
“The Keeping Hours” tells a made-for-cable tale, but makes it cinematic through the excellent performances of Lee Pace and Carrie Coon. Constricted by maudlin material, Pace and Coon can only take their characters a certain distance, yet push those boundaries as far as any actors could. They singlehandedly elevate the movie above its Hallmark Channel roots, injecting organic emotion to balance the artificial exploitation of sunlight reflecting on rippling water as piano keys tug at your heartstrings.
The film understands exactly what it is doing throughout every melancholy moment, and is honestly executed for the movie it always intends to be. For these reasons, “The Keeping Hours” has to be favorably appreciated for ably achieving its goals as a dramatic tearjerker. You absolutely have to be in the mood for a movie designed to make you reach for tissues, not to hide eyes in fright. Expectations for anything else can only end in dulled disappointment.
Review Score: 70