Studio: Giant Interactive
Director: Philip Gelatt
Writer: Philip Gelatt
Producer: Will Battersby, Philip Gelatt, Linus Hume
Stars: Rebecca Henderson, William Jackson Harper
Paranoid fears overwhelm two scientists investigating animal biology at the former site of a murderous cult’s compound.
One of the primary reasons why people consult reviews is to gauge whether or not a given film might be personally appealing. Should that be what brought you to these words, the most pertinent thing to realize about “They Remain” is that it heavily emphasizes intangible tone over tangible action. So if you’re someone whose preferences don’t align with the A24 aesthetic of something like “It Comes at Night” (review here) or the slow burn suspense of Ti West, understand upfront that “They Remain” will break your patience in half.
Keith and Jessica, scientists with corporate overseers as nebulously defined as their relationship, have arrived at a remote forest research station. A Manson Family-like cult committed mass murder on the land before being captured, but now there is a curious lack of animal activity in the area. With Keith conducting outdoor canvassing while Jessica examines data in the mobile laboratory, it falls on this two-person team to figure out why biological behaviors changed.
Odd occurrences soon start fraying nerves. For Keith, it’s an occasional nightmarish flash or stare down with a stray dog. For Jessica, it’s a troubling dream or knock on the hatch door when she should be alone. Whether the cause is stir craziness or something more sinister, these two are positioned for head-on collisions with paranoia, each other, and whatever weirdness may lurk in the woods.
With only two actors and a straight arrow setup, “They Remain” is a minimalist movie in conception as well as execution. That doesn’t mean its low budget defines the look though. An open-air location featuring lush long shots adds visual mileage that the choking confines of a single interior couldn’t capture. Top-grade professional commitment also ensures proper lighting, focus, set dressing, etc. Its leanness may be misleading. This is a case where Spartan doesn’t equal slapdash.
Because the film purposefully runs on low fuel, the roles of Keith and Jessica cannot be categorized as particularly “meaty.” Nevertheless, Rebecca Henderson and William Jackson Harper give the duo all the depth necessary for their performances to read as authentic. Simple, sincere work by the pair communicates characters who say more with mannerisms than they do with words.
Working from the novella “-30-“ by Laird Barron, writer/director Philip Gelatt uses suggestive horror to build his sense of subtly tightening tension. While waiting for that slow burn to heat up, “They Remain” threatens to polarize viewers by playing tug-of-war between a traditionally linear narrative and a psychodrama woven from implied dread. Those anxious for explanations behind the eeriness may instead encounter frustration with artfully-edited hallucination sequences that have unconventional ideas about being indirectly disturbing. Again, this is a movie where monsters are not the main attraction. The unidentified threat of one is.
Although effective more often than not, “They Remain” isn’t the most successful exploration of cerebral chills. Even the slowest moments milk all the mood they can, usually with liberal assistance from appropriately unsettling music. Tom Keohane’s infectious score earns the MVP award for lifting the lion’s share load of supplying ambiance. But long lingers and inconsequential cutaways add up to a tax that substance doesn’t fully fund for payment.
Burdened by a 100-minute runtime that feels fat, Gelatt could have mitigated a portion of the malaise with a few more scissor snips in the editing room. Gelatt has a handle on how he means to construct a story through atmosphere. His sense of rhythm just doesn’t balance what is essential with what is excisable. End results equate to a movie whose creeps feel incomplete. Indeterminate terror certainly stirs in the movie’s ambiguous air. However, you can’t put yourself completely in the hands of its fiction, what with pacing providing regular reminders that you must actively engage your own imagination.
Myself, I appreciate the vaguely Lovecraftian texture “They Remain” aims for, though I admit its arrows land away from the bullseye. Muted thrills and introspective arcs mean the movie won’t strike the same sensory chords with everyone. Consider complementing calibrated expectations with a willingness to mentally meet the movie’s effort halfway. Then “They Remain” can, and will, act on its peripheral ability to crawl on the underside of skin.
Review Score: 60